Falcons defenders Michael Bennett (from left), Adrian Clayborn, Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, Jack Crawford, Desmond Trufant and Takk McKinley watch the third string defense from the sidelines during the first practice of training camp Monday, July 22, 2019, in Flowery Branch.
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Looking for a rush, the Falcons think they have it in Beasley and McKinley

Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley know they have to be better, that the Falcons’ pass rush has to be better, and everybody needs to be better in 2019 so as to not miss the playoffs again, but they do not share similar goals regardless of their shared job descriptions.

One dude is getting smaller to be faster, and the other wants to muscle up.

They are trying to “mix it up” more, and coach Dan Quinn – who set his pedigree coaching defensive linemen – has his nose right in there trying to help them morph each other’s styles together.

These edge rushers – sometimes they’re defensive ends and sometimes they’re outside linebackers as the Quinn staff mixes things up – want to be more like each other.

Beasley, who led the NFL in sacks in the Falcons’ Super Bowl season of 2016, when he dropped opposing quarterbacks 15.5 times only to go over a cliff the past two seasons with five sacks in each campaign, and McKinley are trying to absorb some of each other’s skill sets.

It sure seems like it will be in the Falcons’ best interests for Beasley, the “speed rusher” to be more of a bully, like McKinley, and for Takk – who’s been almost a pure “bull rusher” – to find a way to play with more speed.

“That’s probably a good way of saying it. Takk having a little bit of Vic in his game,” first-year defensive line coach Jess Simpson said. “If you look at the way he’s using his hands, he has really grown in that way. It’s cool they get to see each other day.”

It’s hard to say who is trying to change more.

McKinley, the plow, had a team-high seven sacks last season in 15 games, with most of his best work coming before Halloween. Beasley, the road runner, had a hard time finding consistency; he frequently got pushed wide and out of a rush in part because he took such wide angles off the snap.

Beasley has been criticized over the past two seasons in NFL circular conversations because of his sack numbers and the storyline is nearly always the same: he has one move off the edge; he tries to out-run an offensive tackle, or, perhaps a tight end.

Quinn made his mark coaching defensive lines, mostly in the NFL with San Francisco, Miami, the New York Jets and Seattle twice (where he also coordinated two fabulously stout defenses), and he’s been barking more.

He’s hammered Beasley and McKinley that in some ways football can be analogous to a baseball pitcher: You have a go-to pitch, but you need others to survive at this level.

So, Beasley made a sack in the Falcons’ second exhibition game, against the Redskins, with an inside move. It was kind of shocking, really.

“I don’t really use the bull that much. I’m a speed guy,” said Beasley, whom the Falcons drafted No. 9 overall in 2015. “That’s really my fastball. The curveball would be my bull rush.” Hah! A bull rush.

You’ve probably got a problem when your starting “edge rushers” go through a season with a combined 12 sacks. You know, like last season.

The Falcons’ pair say they’re trying to do something about that. They’re trying to grow their skill sets away from something: In Beasley’s case just trying to out-run everyone, and in McKinley’s case trying to smash through everyone.

There are more options for edge rushers than can be detailed here, including the bull, the speed, the rip, the arm-over, the swipe and rip, the dip and bend. All kinds of pass-rush moves, like the way you change the oil in your car, truck or SUV. 

Not everybody can do everything effectively.

But for long-term, legitimate effectiveness, these men need to grow their skill sets. The NFL figured out Beasley’s speed rush a couple of years ago.

These guys have to grow their games. 

Just as no MLB pitcher could get by – at least anyone not named Mariano Rivera – could get by with just one pitch, McKinley and Beasley need different arrows in their quivers. With one pitch, you can’t set up others. Opponents will sit on your pitch, and good luck – if you’re anyone other than Rivera – getting by with one pitch.

“I could throw bull in, bull in, bull in, but like DQ says, ‘You’ve got a fastball. Now you need a curve ball,’” McKinley said. “Last year (under defensive line coach Bryant Young, who resigned for personal reasons), we really weren’t doing that much. We were just kind of throwing our fastball, and teams were picking up on it.”

Beasley worked out away from the team in the offseason, which may be seen as curious, but he worked.

“I feel like this offseason I tried to work a little on conditioning to better myself on the field,” he said. 

Rarely do you get much from Vic when there’s audio being recorded.

McKinley is hit-and-miss that way. Some days, he’s a grump. On a few others, he opens a verbal vein. On this day, he had Vic next to him, and one audio recorder.

“For me, the biggest thing was my weight was kind of an issue last year at 273, so I wasn’t trusting my speed as much,” he said. “I cut that down to 258, so now I’m back to being able to rush off the edge, use my speed, different types of move like chop, chop-rip, poke-hammer, et cetera. That’s the curve for me, trusting the speed off the bull (setup).”

Whatever happens to the Falcons’ defense this season will have more to do with the head coach that has happened in his first four seasons in charge. He took over the defensive play calls late in the Super Bowl season, but nobody knew that until after it started happening.

He’s always digging in and interacting with players, this mighty Quinn, but the degrees have changed.

Quinn played defensive line in college, at Salisbury State, and D-line assignments dot his resume, big-time, through college and NFL assignments.

So, with Young’s departure from the staff and the release of defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, DQ is very much back in the fold. And in the meeting rooms.

“For me, having DQ as our D-line coach and our D-coordinator, he’s worked with a lot of great pass rushers in the past; Jason Taylor (with the Dolphins), Michael Bennett (with the Seahawks), and a lot of the little tips he gives us on different techniques and different rush angles, all the things that we weren’t doing last year will pay off this year ...,” McKinley said.

“It’s a big thing knowing he’s got your back. ... It’s been cool having meetings with him every day. Most players don’t have a head coach in their meeting rooms teaching them the little things. You feel me? That’s been a plus for us.” 

Beasley explained: “He knows each and every player’s strengths and weaknesses, so like Takk’s strength is bull rush. I’m more of a speed guy, so he just gives him different moves to work off of our strengths. He’ll give me advice on that, and when I do throw different moves in there it’ll help the speed rush.”

Defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn may help. Re-acquired by the Falcons in the offseason, he was on the team in 2016, with Beasley, and spread some wisdom. Back then, the fountain of wisdom was Dwight Freeney. He was a bit player, but man, did he have some advice to offer.

Clayborn spent 2018 with the Patriots. 

He’s back now.

Among other things, he’s helping Beasley and Clayborn with the importance of communication.

“He’s been really good about teaching and communicating, and having a player’s perspective on what looks good, what doesn’t, what might be better for everybody in the room,” Simpson said. 

The Falcons’ brass is optimistic. Beasley’s using more moves. McKinley’s lighter and faster. Simpson and Quinn are right in there day after day.

The Falcons’ head coach is hands-on with those rushers, “Probably 60 percent more. There’s at least two of the three work days that I’m with them a good bit of the time,” he said. 

Got the first time in his three NFL seasons, McKinley is not coming off a shoulder surgery and rehabilitation. So, that may help.

“He’s lighter, so I’d say he’s faster. He’s much further along,” Quinn said. “Vic’s always had good speed and quickness. I’d say the difference this year is the other elements that he’s brought into his game as a rusher. Both of them are significantly better, I would say, heading into ’19 than they have been.” 

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