Falcons never in a rush to get sacks

Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora led the team with 7.5 sacks last season.
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Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora led the team with 7.5 sacks last season.

Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack

Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack

I’ve always taken it with a grain of salt when Falcons coach Mike Smith says sacks are overrated. His team has never gotten many sacks, so the best way for him to put a positive spin on a bad situation is to downplay the importance of something every NFL team covets.

But I’m starting to wonder if the Falcons as an organization really don’t value pass rushers so much. There's really no other conclusion to draw from the way they essentially ignored their need for one during the last offseason, continuing a trend in which pass rushers seem to be low on their priority list.

By now, everyone knows the Falcons decided not to add an edge rusher after a weak pass rush in 2013. You know how they planned to stop the run to set up passing downs and get sacks from several players. You've heard that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was going to use scheme to get pressure.

The plan is not going well. The Falcons rank next-to-last in sack percentage. According to Pro Football Focus, the Falcons rank 27th in total pressures (sacks, hurries and hits).

Using so many exotic schemes means you end up with situations such as linebacker Paul Worrilow covering the deep middle against the Giants on Sunday. Fox NFL game analyst John Lynch saw this and said:

“Mike Nolan is in a tough position. He really doesn’t have a pass rusher. You’ve got Osi Umenyiora who plays in pass situations, was so good as a Giant, (but) late in his career. There’s not a guy who’s going to win one-on-ones on a consistent basis. He has to dial up scheme to get pressure. Sometimes that’s what happens when you rely too much on scheme.”

Listen, it's nearly impossible to have it all in the NFL's salary-cap era. Every team has major holes. The Falcons have decided to spend most of their cap dollars and draft picks on offensive players, and the results have been very good overall even with a shaky offensive line. Their identity is scoring points.

But you’d think the Falcons at least would spend more resources on the most important defensive position. There’s a reason the average salary for NFL defensive ends ranks second to quarterbacks. Quarterbacks rule the NFL and making them uncomfortable--like the Giants did to Matt Ryan when they cranked up the pressure in second half--is a defensive priority.

The Falcons don't spend their cap dollars in a way that makes you think they agree. Among their pass rushers, Osi Umenyiora is costing them the most against the cap this season ($4.75 million). There are 22 NFL defensive ends that cost their teams more against the cap, according to spotrac.com. The Falcons probably could have used two bona fide pass rushers in 2013 but swapped Umenyiora for John Abraham while spending $4 million guaranteed for running back Steven Jackson.

The current Falcons regime also don’t draft in a way that signals it values pass rushers. GM Thomas Dimitroff has never used a pick in the first three rounds to select one. They’ve used a pick as high as the fourth round just once, for Lawrence Sidbury in 2009 (unless you also count rookie linebacker Prince Shembo). With pass rush an obvious area of need the past two seasons, the Falcons drafted cornerbacks in the first two rounds in 2013 and this season used a second-round pick on Ra’Shede Hageman, a project tackle who has played a total of 69 snaps so far.

Both Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, the two second-year cornerbacks, appear to be players. But they can’t cover forever while waiting for someone to pressure the quarterback, a point Lynch noted as Alford had a nightmarish game against the Giants that included four penalties in coverage.

“Three Mississippi, four Mississippi, that works; 10 Mississippi, it doesn’t work,” Lynch said. “I played defensive back in this league—you can’t cover that long. I feel sorry for these guys like Alford, like Trufant, these young corners that are highly skilled. This team struggles to get a pass rush and that’s what happens. You don’t necessarily get the ball thrown down the field on you all the time but you can’t cover that long so you tend to hold and grab.”

The Falcons' run defense has shown gradual improvement so maybe they'll get more favorable down-and-distance situations, like they'd planned. Perhaps the light comes on for young pass rushers Jonathan Massaquoi, Malliciah Goodman or Stansly Maponga. It's possible Umenyiora, Jonathan Babineaux or Kroy Biermann finds another gear and starts getting to the quarterback. Nolan might be able to trick up enough pressure here and there.

If enough of those things happen, then maybe the Falcons can get some more of those overrated sacks.

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