The Falcons can stunt their linemen and linebackers in an attempt to generate a pass rush. They can blitz their defensive backs. They can say pressuring the quarterback is a collective effort.
But at some point Falcons pass rushers other than Dwight Freeney have to consistently beat blockers on their own and get to the quarterback. Otherwise it will be difficult to improve what Pro Football Outsiders rates as the league’s second-worst pass defense.
“It comes down to winning your individual match ups,” ESPN analyst and ex-NFL coach Jon Gruden said before the Falcons played the Saints on Monday night, followed by several clips of Falcons pass rushers failing to do it.
But the Falcons (2-1) then had their best game of the season rushing the passer. Freeney led the way with four pressures and a game-clinching sack of Drew Brees on 27 rushes, according to Pro Football Focus, and now is their most productive pass rusher in three games.
That’s good for the Falcons because they signed Freeney as a free agent to generate pass rush. The downside is that Freeney is 36-years old and has played about 40 percent of the defensive snaps, with a total of 73 pass-rushing attempts.
Playing Freeney more snaps could decrease his effectiveness. Then again, the the Falcons have tried to keep him fresh: they didn’t sign him until Aug. 2, played him just eight snaps in one exhibition game and have excused him from one practice each week.
Against the Saints, Freeney showed he’s still clever and skillful even as his physical abilities decline. He attacked backup left tackle Andrus Peat by setting him up with outside bull rushes before countering with inside moves, including his famous spin.
“I’ve been around for a while and that comes with a lot of experience and seeing a lot of things,” Freeney said. “You don’t know everything so that’s why I keep studying… . I pass those things off to the young guys to kind of lead them through those tough times when they are not making plays, if they want to make a little bit more plays.
“The only reason an older guy makes plays still—you are not faster, you might be as strong but not as quick—but the thing is I can anticipate things before it happens.”
Freeney draws another potentially vulnerable opponent when he faces Panthers left tackle Michael Oher on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
The Ravens selected Oher in the first round of the 2009 draft but he washed out with them. The Titans cut him after he was awful in pass protection over 11 games in 2014. The Panthers won the 2015 NFC title with Oher effectively protecting Cam Newton’s blind side, earning Oher a contract extension with $9.5 million guaranteed, but there are signs that he’s no longer holding up.
The Vikings had eight sacks of quarterback Cam Newton in a victory at Carolina (1-2) on Sunday and Pro Football Focus said Oher was responsible for three of them. Oher also allowed five hurries.
With Freeney in a part-time role, the Falcons need other players to help out with the pass rush. Vic Beasley Jr., the team’s first-round draft pick in 2015, matched his carer-high with five pressures against the Saints, who eventually used wide receivers and tight ends to “chip” Beasley and Freeney before running routes.
Beasley said the team’s other pass rushers are following Freeney’s lead.
“He’s got a lot of knowledge, man,” Beasley said. “Obviously the spin move, everybody knows about that by now. But he’s just helping the whole defensive line in the pass rush.”
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