Defense is looking to attack, punish in 2016

PART TWO OF TWO PARTSWith training camp opening in four weeks, Falcons beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter breaks down the 89-man roster. In the second of two parts, an assessment of the defense.

The Falcons’ defense made some strides last season as the team went 8-8, but, under first-year coach Dan Quinn, they failed to reach the playoffs for the third consecutive season.

The unit, which is aiming to get faster in 2016, finished last season ranked 16th in the league in yards allowed (347.6 yard per game). They also were 14th in points allowed (21.6 per game.) In 2014, they were 32nd and 27th respectively.

The franchise tried to address several of their deficiencies this offseason through free agency, the draft and self-improvement.

Here’s a look at the defense heading into next month’s training camp.


Ends: Adrian Clayborn, Brooks Reed, Courtney Upshaw, Brandon Williams, Vic Beasley Jr., Ivan McLennan, Malliciah Goodman, Tyler Starr and Nordly Capi.

Tackles: Grady Jarrett, Tyson Jackson, Jonathan Babineaux, Cory Johnson, Derrick Shelby, Ra'Shede Hageman, Joey Mbu and Chris Mayes.

Generating a pass rush was the top offseason priority. The coaches pointed out that pass rush isn’t all about sacks and that quarterback hurries and hits must be counted but even considering those factors, the unit still lagged behind the rest of the NFL.

The Falcons had 19 sacks, 70 quarterback hurries and 75 quarterback hits on 561 pass plays in 2015. That’s an anemic pass-rush ratio of 3.42 percent. Their sack ratio of 3.39 percent was last in the league.

While they didn’t directly address the rush in the draft, the Falcons are hoping that better coverage on tight ends and running backs will give the pass-rushers more time to close in on quarterbacks.

Beasley, who had four sacks, 22 hurries and five quarterback hits as a rookie, is moving to strongside linebacker in the base defense. While he was a factor on 31 plays, defensive line coach Bryan Cox said they must find a way to turn some of those hurries and hits into sacks.

The Falcons are counting on improvement from Clayborn, who led the team with 15 quarterback hits. The team also added Shelby in free agency.

Hageman, who’s heading into his third season, needs to improve his play.

“I think he’s done a good job this offseason of working to get his pad level lower and working on his ankle flexing,” Cox said. “(Those are) some of the things that can make him a better player.”


Sean Weatherspoon, De’Vondre Campbell, Philip Wheeler, Torrey Green, Paul Worrilow, Deion Jones and LaRoy Reynolds. (Beasley, Upshaw and Reed also play linebacker.)

A great deal of resources were used to upgrade the linebacker corps, which was solid against the run, but struggled playing in space in 2015.

The Falcons added some speed in draft picks Jones (second round) and Campbell (fourth round) and both ended the offseason working with the first team. Linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich believes the revamped unit can infuse the defense with a nastier attitude.

“That’s what fast and physical is about. It’s about taking your shot,” Ulbrich said. “Dealing with us and us not dealing with you.”

The linebackers also must help with defending running backs and sometimes tight ends in the pass game, a problem area at times last season.

“What has to come to life is the ability to close on them and punish them,” Ulbrich said.

Cox believes the move to strongside linebacker is good for the 233-pound Beasley, who was battling 300-pound linemen on a regular basis last season.

“It’s a good change of pace when you can have him at that position and bring him down on the line,” Cox said.


Akeem King, DeMarcus Van Dyke, C.J. Goodwin, Devonte Johnson, Jalen Collins, Robert Alford, Desmond Trufant, David Mims II and Jordan Sefon.

In addition to filling the right cornerback spot during Collins’ four-game suspension, the Falcons must find some depth at nickel back and outside coverage.

The most intriguing prospect in the cornerback group is Goodwin, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound converted wide receiver and former college basketball player.

“He’s competing,” secondary/senior assistant Marquand Manuel said. “He’s doing an awesome job competing. He’s a natural attack-the-ball defender because of basketball.”

Goodwin played basketball at Bethany College for two seasons. He went on to play football at Fairmont State and California (Pa.) before he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014.

“I compare him a lot to the corner from Miami of Ohio that Green Bay drafted (Quinten Rollins),” Manuel said. “He’s a former basketball player who can come out here and actually play football. … I’m really excited to see what he ends up being. I’m encouraged.”


Ricardo Allen, Robenson Therezie, Sharrod Neaseman, Brian Poole, Keanu Neal, Charles Godfrey, Kemal Ishmael and Damian Parms.

The Falcons used the 17th overall pick in the draft to select Neal, who is slated to replace William Moore at strong safety.

Trufant, who started right away as a rookie in the NFL, has been impressed with Neal.

“He can move with the best of them,” Trufant said. “That’s what I was really impressed with. He just has to continue to grow mentally and things like that, but he’s looking good.”


Kickers: Matt Bryant and Nick Rose.

Kickoffs/punter: Matt Bosher.

Long snapper: Josh Harris.

Returners: Devin Hester, Eric Weems, Justin Hardy, David Glidden and J.D. McKissic.

Holders: Bosher, Matt Ryan and Matt Schaub.

Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong is not one to mince his words. He felt his units were not very good last season.

“I thought we were average,” Armstrong said. “We need to get better as a coverage unit. We need to get better in the return game and we did not block any field goals or punts last year. We’ve got some work to do.”

Armstrong, as usual, was on point. The Falcons were the 22nd in the league in the Dallas Morning News’ special teams rankings.

Rose has a powerful leg, but may not be consistent enough to unseat Bryant.