Falcons outside linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. was named NFC defensive player of the week after getting three sacks and forcing a fumble and returning it for a touchdown in a 42-14 win over the Los Angeles Rams. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Vic Beasley’s strength goes beyond that of a pass rusher

He’s working harder. … He’s practicing smarter. … He’s studying film. … He’s being mentored by a future Hall of Famer. … He has had added muscle. … He’s not playing injured. … His father’s failing health last season drained him far more than he would ever admit.

The truth? Probably all of those things played roles in Vic Beasley Jr.’s dramatic rebound from an unimpressive rookie season, a four-sack effort that served as manna for critics who annually feed on Falcons’ perceived draft failures.

But sometimes, it’s this simple: The light goes on.

Beasley, the Falcons’ sudden-star edge rusher and the NFL’s co-leader in sacks, took a USO trip to the Pacific with coach Dan Quinn and others in June. Quinn said it was his first opportunity to really get to know Beasley: “When you’re on 14- to 15-hour flights, you’d be surprised how well you get to know somebody.”

The two did a lot of reflecting on the 2015 season, from games to practice habits, from what went wrong to what could go right.

Beasley agreed those talks were beneficial. But what impacted more was what he saw on the trip.

“The whole time we were on the trip, the actions of the military spoke to me,” he said. “I got to see how hard the military works. The Navy SEALS, the Air Force — I got to see how much time they put in and I just thought about how this transfers over to football.”

So it gave you perspective?

“No doubt.”

Click.

Light.

The Falcons’ defense this season isn’t great. It ranks in the NFL’s bottom third in most statistical categories. But the roster includes a number of young, talented and athletic players with seemingly high ceilings, and none have risen more dramatically than Beasley.

His 13 ½ sacks, with three games remaining, ranks second in franchise history behind John Abraham’s 16 ½ (2008), since sacks became an official statistic in 1982. Including all years, Beasley’s total ranks fourth among Falcons behind Abraham, Joel Williams (16, 1980) and Claude Humphrey (15, 1976).

Beasley had only one sack in the season’s first four games — and that came when Oakland’s Derek Carr scrambled out of bounds for zero yards (technically a sack) just before halftime in Game 2. Do the math: Beasley has 12 ½ sacks in nine games since, including three in last week’s win over the Los Angeles Rams.

Two of his sacks came one-handed as he was being blocked. He also had a strip-fumble recovery-touchdown return of 21 yards, after which he had quite possibly the worst attempt at a crossbar dunk ever witnessed. But the weak leap didn’t cost him Player of the Week honors, nor will it disqualify him for NFC Defensive Player of the Year consideration.

“He said, ‘My legs just gave out,’” Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox said. “I’m like, ‘You only ran 21 yards.’”

“I don’t want to talk about the celebration,” Beasley said, smiling.

No matter. His season has been a celebration on so many levels.

With the sacks, he also has a team-high six forced fumbles, eight tackles for loss, 15 quarterback hits and 19.5 quarterback hurries. He has become the player opposing offensive coordinators circle when game-planning, telling players, “Watch this guy.”

Dwight Freeney, a Hall of Famer-in-waiting with 122 ½ sacks and a locker-room mentor in Flowery Branch, said last week that Beasley “has shown an eagerness to learn,” and “His football IQ is starting to grow.”

Beasley is deeply spiritual. That has enabled him to overcome not only criticism but, more important, endure personal loss in his life, including the death of his father. Vic Beasley Sr. died of cirrhosis last April. His older brother, Tyrone, was killed in a car accident in 2014.

Beasley frequently drove home to Adairsville during his rookie season to be with his father, who struggled for years to escape the clutches of alcoholism.

“Just dealing with what my dad going through, being in and out of different hospital — I had to be there for him whenever I could,” Beasley said. “Sometimes I would go after practice, sometimes twice a week. It would just depend on how he was feeling that day.”

Was it draining?

“It was tough. Whenever you lose a loved one, you enjoy the moments that you have with him. Each and every morning, I tried to not take that for granted.”

Do you draw strength from him now?

“He’s always on my mind. Going through things, losing my dad, you gain strength as a person.”

Professional athletes generally avoid using excuses for not being at their best. Beasley’s no different. But he would be less than human if there wasn’t some emotional toll on him, but he’s quiet by nature and never complained around the Falcons.

“He’s such a private guy,” Quinn said. “I had a chance to go to the funeral and see how much of the community was there. His dad was there when he was drafted. (His illness) definitely did wear on Vic. I can’t tell you how much because I didn’t have to live it but it weighed on him, for sure.”

It has taken coaches and teammates a while to get to know Beasley. His personality is diametric to that of Bryan Cox, whose temper and berating of defensive linemen is somewhat legendary.

Cox came to realize Beasley was not going to respond to his usual ways, that some players respond better with a more finessed approach.

“He’s made me a better coach,” Cox said.

Cox learned more about Beasley after last season when the coach and linemen took a bonding trip to Miami (paid for with internal “fine” money).

“Got to know him away from football, got to know what makes him tick,” Cox said.

But Cox said Beasley didn’t start to change his ways until a few weeks into the season.

“He was the same Vic in training camp. He was just out there, kind of wandering around. As I’ve shared with some other people, Vic is never gonna die of a heart attack. He’s never stressed. Some of that is because of his faith, some of it is because of how he is raised. He’s a genuine good young man.”

Cox referenced Beasley leaving his father’s wake in April to keep a promise to speak to kids with cancer at the Rally Foundation, before returning to Adairsville.

“That’s who he is,” Cox said. “He’s talking to kids because he believes spreading the word of God is more important than anything he can do on the field. You’re dealing with a different individual.”

On the field, Cox believes Beasley improved in practice habits and film study early in the season and credited Freeney for connecting with the 24-year-old.

“Sometimes when Dwight says it, it means more than when it comes from a coach,” Cox said.

Beasley is learning how to deal with offenses paying more attention to him, working on his technique and stunts, turning expectations into reality.

Last season, he said, “was a tough adjustment for me. But as time has gone on, I’ve gotten more comfortable.”

And suddenly, it’s quarterbacks who are uncomfortable.

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