In the past six seasons, the Falcons ranked 26th, 20th, 19th, 28th, 29th and 30th in total sacks, the problem being that there aren’t nearly as many professional football teams in the U.S. (32) as there are islands (18,617).
Quarterbacks don’t run away from Falcons pass rushers. They do yoga stretches, meditate, kick back, make a sandwich and then taunt them on Twitter (“Hey look, Ray Edwards! LOL. #UnderwearModel”).
Nobody could have expected it would get this bad, but this is what happens when a team consistently can’t draft, sign or develop pass rushers. It is/was the tender spot of the Thomas Dimitroff (is)/Mike Smith (was) regime. Now there’s a new coach, new players and seemingly a new emphasis.
“I have spent more time with pass rushers, and that’s by design because it’s my area of expertise,” said Falcons coach Dan Quinn, a former line coach and defensive coordinator in Seattle who’s less than two weeks into his first training camp as a head coach. “Some head coaches have a background with quarterbacks so they lean in that direction. I lean towards pass rushers.”
In this camp, we see Quinn spending more time tutoring the defensive lineman in the one-on-one drills than obsessing over the receivers’ route running in the offense’s seven-on-seven passing drills. We see him spend 30 minutes in a practice talking to linemen about their hands and their footwork.
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“I’ve never seen a head coach involved with the defense like he is, especially with the defensive line,” said end Vic Beasley, the team’s first-round draft pick.
Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White get most of the attention on the Falcons. But the fortunes of this team come down to this: Without a pass rush, they will be a six-win team again. With one, they’ll win nine to 11. Ranking 32nd (last) in both pass and total defense was more the byproduct of an anemic front seven than the secondary.
They need Beasley, the eighth overall pick, to be some semblance of the player he was at Clemson, where he had 25 sacks and 44.5 tackles for loss in his last two seasons. They need significant contributions from outside linebackers Brooks Reed and O’Brien Schofield, both signed as unrestricted free agents.
They also need Ra’Shede Hageman not to make them look bad again.
Hageman, who projects to start at defensive tackle next to Beasley, was a second-round pick last year. That decision was based on his athleticism and the potential that Falcons coaches believed they saw in him during Senior Bowl practices. There were several questions about Hageman’s inconsistent effort in college at Minnesota, but the Falcons minimized those.
In Year 1, the skeptics won. Hageman showed up for training camp seemingly out of shape and unprepared. Defensive line coach Bryan Cox, who lives for fresh meat, hounded him constantly. The Cox/Hageman Abuse Watch led to one of the few watchable moments of the show “Hard Knocks,” although that made the team’s decision to do the show that much more regrettable.
Action! Cox speaking to another assistant while Hageman dragged through running drills: “You see why we need to put something together for him. Because that’s pathetic. Just dog (bleep).”
Action! Cox to Hageman: “Get yourself in shape! That’s on you, not me!”
But Cox said he and Hageman spoke at the start of training camp, and he sees a positive change.
“You can see that he’s growing,” Cox said. “He came in, and we had a little conversation. He just said, ‘I feel like I’m a man now.’ So, he’s doing things the way that he should do them.”
Hageman said he dropped some weight, from 320 pounds down to 311. Cox said, “He has a work ethic that he didn’t have last year,” but Hageman won’t go that far in critical self-analysis. He attributes problems in his rookie season more to scheme (he played in a 3-4 after excelling in a 4-3 in college) than relative indifference.
As for his weight last year, Hageman said of being 320, “It’s not too heavy. But this defense is more of a run-and-gun. I just feel better overall. I’m in a better place overall with the defense and how they use me.
“Everybody is going to have their opinions of what they think of you. The best I can do is control what I do every day.”
Quinn acknowledges the pass rush will be a “major factor” in the Falcons’ season. “I’m pleased with the progress we’re making but we still have a ways to go.”
Guarded optimism: That’s probably best.