McKinley gives Falcons’ pass rush a boost

Atlanta Falcons defensive end Takkarist McKinley (98) reaches for Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Joshua Dobbs (5) in the first half Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017, in Pittsburgh.

Credit: Don Wright

Credit: Don Wright

Atlanta Falcons defensive end Takkarist McKinley (98) reaches for Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Joshua Dobbs (5) in the first half Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017, in Pittsburgh.

The Falcons pass rush is coming along.

"I felt the speed defensively, early on especially," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said after the 17-13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field.

The Falcons had one sack and three quarterback hits, one by first-round pick Takkarist McKinley, who made his NFL debut.

“He was very excited to get going,” Quinn said. “He played a little bit at right end in our nickel package and a little bit on the punt return game. For him, getting his first NFL action was exciting for him.”

McKinley played 10 snaps on defense and five on special teams.

Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett had a hit on Steelers quarterback Joshua Dobbs and backup linebacker Jack Lynn forced an interception.

Defensive end Charles Odom had the team’s only sack, while J’Terious Jones had a sack taken away when cornerback Deji Olatoye lined up in the neutral zone.

McKinley, who was the 26th player taken in the NFL draft, has recovered from a surgically repaired right shoulder.
McKinley's combination of speed and power has been impressive in practice. He didn't play in the exhibition opener against Miami.

McKinley entered the game in the third quarter against the Steelers. He played hard and chased plays away from him.

McKinley, who was drafted to help the pass rush opposite of Vic Beasley from the right side, didn’t register a sack. In addition to his quarterback hit,  McKinley flashed on an inside stunt with Courtney Upshaw.

“I think he had a couple of pressures,” Beasley said of McKinley. “He’s starting to get acclimated with the game. Come soon, he’ll be good to go.”

Beasley feels the pass rush is developing.

“I feel that our young guys are playing exceptionally well,” Beasley said. “The guys we brought in are playing exceptionally well. We’ve got a lot of big things coming.”

McKinley showed his speed going up field and then cutting inside, while Upshaw looped outside on a stunt.

“I have to take a look at the tape,” Quinn said. “He didn’t get a lot of turns or a lot of opportunities. But it was good having him out there.”

Jack Crawford, who was signed in free agency, made his debut with the Falcons, too. He played 17 snaps.

“It felt good being out there because being in a game is a different feel,” said Crawford, who’s recovered from a groin injury. “I was in there for a long drive, like eight plays. It felt good to get my wind going.”

Crawford felts things went well overall.

“There were a couple of plays that I would like to change, but I had a couple of good plays,” Crawford said. “I felt like it was definitely a first step. This is something definitely that I can build off of going into next week.”

Crawford senses that the pass rush is coming along, too.

“I feel pretty good about the whole group,” Crawford said. “Rushing with these guys, we are so deep and we have some bigtime pass rushers on this (defensive) line. I just feel pretty good right now.”

Last season, the Falcons pass rush went from being anemic to having a pulse. They are hoping with the addition of McKinely, Crawford and defensive tackle Dontari Poe will  take the pass rush to an even higher level.

Poe, a two-time Pro Bowler, has only 13 sacks over 78 NFL games. He had a career-high six sacks in 2014.

The Falcons believe that Poe and Jarrett, who had three sacks in the Super Bowl, in the middle of the defense can add to the pass rush.

Quinn had to blitz and send more than four players too often last season. He’d prefer to rush with only four players.

Poe was asked mostly to anchor at nose guard in Kansas City’s 3-4 defense. He played some at defensive end, but wasn’t asked to rush the passer much.

After reviewing three seasons of film on Poe, the Falcons believe he can play in their attacking front.

The Falcons registered their 34 sacks over 655 pass attempts last season. They had a sack per 19.2 pass attempt. The Falcons had 19 sacks over 561 pass attempts in 2015, one per 29.5 pass attempts.

The 34 sacks were the post by a Falcons team since the 37 in 2007.

The Falcons have not had two double-digit sackers since Rod Coleman (11.5) and Patrick Kerney (13) in the 2004 season.

“We’ve got a good rotation of guys who really battle at the defensive line spots,” Quinn said. “I’m encouraged by the work that they have put in. Takk is going to be an important part of that. We’ll go back, take a look and see how it went.

The Falcons were able to some stops early.

“I was happy with the speed,” Quinn said. “We had a couple of good third down stops. One, I felt we got fortunate on because they dropped a pass which may have been converted.

“Past that, I felt the energy, the speed and get off. That’s the thing I’m looking for first, are you able to move the quarterback off the spot? If you can do that, generally that completion percentage goes down. We don’t always look at sack as the final number.”