Jimmy Lake’s job as Falcons defensive coordinator: Do more with less

Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake speaks to members of the media on Wednesday, February 14, 2024, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / jason.getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake speaks to members of the media on Wednesday, February 14, 2024, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / jason.getz@ajc.com)

FLOWERY BRANCH — Of all the people in the world who had reason to pin their hopes on the Falcons using their first-round pick on a defensive player, Jimmy Lake probably would have been grand marshal of the parade.

The team’s new defensive coordinator is in charge of a unit that not only has lacked playmakers in the pass rush and did not re-sign its two leading sackers from 2023 – though there’s at least a chance one could come back – but also did not bring back its No. 2 cornerback and then did not spend much on replacements through free agency. This from a defense that was largely average against a weak schedule and is on its third coordinator in as many years.

Lake, though, said he was good with the selection of quarterback Michael Penix Jr., even though – and you may have heard this already – the Falcons had just signed quarterback Kirk Cousins to a four-year deal with $100 million guaranteed.

“My experience being a head football coach and being on the offensive side of the ball last year with the L.A. Rams has gained me a way better perspective of what it takes to win football games,” Lake told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday, when the team made its assistant coaches available to media. “So we were all extremely excited with our pick.”

Jimmy Lake was an assistant with the Rams last season. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

If that’s the case, coach Raheem Morris should be thankful for Lake’s brief tenure as head coach of the Washington Huskies and then his one year as an offensive assistant with the Rams – after a career spent coaching defense – for providing Lake with a wider lens. If not for that experience, Lake might have reacted differently to the Falcons passing on available talents such as edge rushers Laiatu Latu (whom Lake coached at Washington before he transferred to UCLA) and Alabama’s Dallas Turner in favor of a player who may not play meaningful snaps for the next two seasons.

Maybe Lake would have gone passive aggressive on general manager Terry Fontenot.

“No, really, I LOVE the pick. We’re totally fine on defense. It’s not like the whole world projected us to pick an edge rusher or anything because it’s so obvious we need one. You do you, Terry.”

Whatever Lake’s feelings about it, it’s the way of the game. The first 14 picks of the draft were offensive players, including Penix. It was the first time in the NFL’s common-draft era (since 1967) that 14 consecutive picks were players from one side of the ball. And that’s not just starting with the first pick, but anywhere in the draft.

As of Wednesday, the Falcons had committed $146 million in salary-cap space to offense and $118 million to defense, according to Over the Cap. That’s a 55/45 balance (leaving out special teams). While it’s only one snapshot, they were one of 22 of the league’s 32 teams that tilted spending to the point-scoring side of the operations, including the teams in each of the past three Super Bowls.

That includes the team that Lake’s boss was hired away from. The Rams’ balance was $191 million for offense and $80 million for defense, a 70/30 split. As their defensive coordinator last year, in fact, Morris was hailed for his unit’s relative success with such a meager portion of the salary cap.

As such, if Lake was ever tempted to plead his case to Morris, he might have been ready for a response along the lines of “In L.A., we would have been thrilled to get 45% of the cap. We also walked uphill both ways to the training complex and had to use dial-up to get online. And, by the way, how about that Michael Penix?”

The Falcons’ free-agency moves on defense this offseason have been Rams-esque. After allowing No. 2 cornerback Jeff Okudah to leave in free agency – not unwisely; he was ranked No. 113 among corners by Pro Football Focus and lost his job to Clark Phillips by season’s end – Fontenot may be OK with having returnees Mike Hughes and Phillips compete for the job.

Free-agent pickups Antonio Hamilton and Kevin King are not obvious solutions. Hamilton has started 18 games in eight seasons and is going into his age-31 season, his best performance almost certainly behind him. King (who played for Lake at Washington) started 42 games in his first five seasons but has not played since 2021 after taking the 2022 season to recover from the mental stress of playing with injuries and then missing 2023 with an Achilles tear, according to a video he released last year.

Falcons defensive tackle Calais Campbell (93) sacks Minnesota Vikings quarterback Joshua Dobbs (15) for a safety during the first half on November 5, 2023, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.  Miguel Martinz/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

The team’s two leading sack producers, Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree (6.5 each), have not been retained. Dupree left as a free agent for the Chargers, although Campbell has yet to sign anywhere and conceivably could return to the Falcons if he does not retire. Barring a late offseason move, production from the edge may have to come from returnees such as Zach Harrison or Arnold Ebiketie (both of whom did show promise last season) or third-round pick Bralen Trice.

The team did sign two defensive linemen with experience, tackle Eddie Goldman and end James Smith-Williams. Both signed one-year deals for the league minimum, an indication of their perceived value. Smith-Williams has 27 career starts in four seasons but was ranked No. 87 among edge players last season by PFF. In an apparent attempt to corner the market on players who’ve been out for the past two seasons, the Falcons are trying again with Goldman, who once was highly productive for the Bears. In 2022, he announced his retirement two weeks after signing with the Falcons. Last year, he came back out of retirement to sign again only to leave the team days into training camp (without ever practicing) for what were deemed personal reasons.

Lake did not protest, saying that the team added players who can be starters and role players both through the draft and free agency even if it didn’t break the bank or use a first-round pick on defense.

“This isn’t playing fantasy football on Madden like my son plays,” Lake said. “I really like our players that were already on the roster. I really like their makeup.”

In fairness, Fontenot did spend big last offseason on defense, bringing in safety Jessie Bates III, defensive tackle David Onyemata, linebacker Kaden Elliss and Campbell and Dupree. And, after the Penix pick, he went heavy drafting for the defensive front seven. On the other hand, Fontenot has spent all four of his first-round picks – all in the top 10 – on offense. Seven of the past eight first-round picks have gone offense. The defensive roster includes only one first-rounder drafted by the Falcons – Terrell.

Lake was asked about how he saw the defense’s role in complementing an offense that is expected to carry the weight this fall with Cousins at quarterback. He again referenced his experience as a head coach and offensive assistant, speaking with the newfound perspective of a college student just returned from a semester abroad.

“Well, first of all, again, with my history of being a head football coach and also being on the offensive side of the ball, you always want an explosive offense that can score points,” he said. “Because the best defense is the defense that’s sitting on the sideline as we’re watching our offense go up and down the field. Or they’re out there and they’re taking a lot of snaps off of us.”

He went on to say he was excited about the pieces on offense, but also those on defense.

Lake, who has never been a coordinator in the NFL, will be due a lot of credit if he can fashion this group into an effective defense. Fortunately for him, he works for someone who’s done it before.