Good luck to new Falcons assistants with helping produce good pass rush

Tough task for Rodgers, Smith
Atlanta Falcons defensive line coach Jay Rodgers talks during media availability during OTAs, Wednesday, June 5, 2024, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Atlanta Falcons defensive line coach Jay Rodgers talks during media availability during OTAs, Wednesday, June 5, 2024, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / AJC)

FLOWERY BRANCH — Jay Rodgers has coached NFL pass rushers for 12 seasons. One of Khalil Mack, Joey Bosa or Elvis Dumervil was part of his position group for seven of those years. Jacquies Smith played five seasons in the NFL. His Buccaneers teammates included Gerald McCoy, an all-time great interior pass rusher.

Now Rodgers (defensive line) and Smith (outside linebackers) have the tough task of helping the Falcons finally generate a good pass rush without a top-tier pass rusher like those. The Falcons have a long tradition of producing a feeble pass rush. GM Terry Fontenot neglected to address that weakness with major investments in player personnel after last season.

It has been a long time since the Falcons had an effective, consistent edge rusher. Smith said the most important attribute for those players is getting off the ball quickly. Is that really something that can be improved?

“Yeah, no doubt about it,” Smith said at the team’s organized team activities. “I mean, it’s the first thing that we do when we get out there on practice. In this defense, you’re going to have a chance to be able to get off the ball and be vertical.”

Rodgers has been fortunate to work with some great pass rushers. But he also was defensive line coach for the Bears when they fashioned a good pass rush before acquiring Mack. Do the Falcons have some pass rushers with the potential to be more productive?

“I don’t know right now,” Rodgers said. “I mean, right now, we’re just trying to line up and know where to go. I don’t want to put the undue pressure on anybody to live up to whatever expectations people may have.

“I think every one of these players have their own expectations, and it’s our jobs as coaches to show them how to meet their own expectations.”

The bar is low for the Falcons’ pass rush. The lack of a good one is the main reason their defense has been mediocre-to-bad for so long. Last season, the Falcons ranked 20th in sacks per pass attempt and 23rd in QB pressure (per Pro Football Reference). Now Rodgers and Smith will try to coax more production out of some talented players.

David Onyemata is a very good interior pass rusher. His partner in the trenches, Grady Jarrett, showed signs of decline during last season’s injury-marred campaign, but I believe he has something left. Big, 3-4 defensive end Zach Harrison had decent production in limited snaps as a rookie.

Third-year edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie appears to be on the come. He was solid as a rookie and was improving last season when he sustained an arm injury. Rookie Bralen Trice was a high-effort pass rusher at Washington. He can be a useful part of the edge rotation this season if he sharpens his skills.

The Falcons lack a sure-thing, productive pass rusher on the roster, so they’ll try to bother QBs with a group effort. Thirtysomethings Onyemata and Jarrett need to hold up. More snaps and production from former starter Lorenzo Carter would help. The Falcons need something from young pass rushers Harrison, Ebiketie and Trice.

“For as long as I can remember we’ve talked about rushing ‘four as one,” Rodgers said.

I’ve covered lots of NFL teams that didn’t have top-tier edge pass rushers (most don’t, by definition). I’ve heard coaches come up with plans that aimed to get consistent QB pressure in other ways. Those approaches essentially come in three flavors:

Get push in the middle so the quarterback can’t step up into the pocket. Send extra pass rushers on blitzes. Cover pass targets tightly so QBs must hold the ball longer, giving more time for the pass rush to get home.

None of those strategies work as well as simply having explosive pass rushers coming off the edge for lots of snaps. Those players are hard to find. The Falcons haven’t really tried. Edge rushers hasn’t been a top priority for their front office and coaching regimes spanning two decades.

The team has used a first-round draft pick on an edge rusher only three times since 2000. Vic Beasley (2015) was a one-year wonder. Takkarist McKinley (2017) and Jamaal Anderson (2007) were busts. In addition to those three players, the Falcons used picks as high as the third round for edge rushers only three other times since 2000.

The Falcons also haven’t invested much in veteran pass rushers. They signed aging stars like Campbell and Dwight Freeney to modest free-agent deals for part-time roles. The best move the Falcons made for a pass rusher was acquiring John Abraham in a 2006 trade. He gave them several good years even as he aged.

The Falcons haven’t had an edge rusher that good since. Smith said the players on this roster have the potential to be better. His aim is to help them improve their “get off” at the snap.

“That’s something you can train,” he said. “That’s something you work on every single day. The minute you don’t work on it is the minute you lose it.”

The Falcons don’t need to field a great defense to win the still-weak NFC South. I expect that they’ll score plenty of points. However, it’s hard to close out opponents without a good pass rush. It was risky for Fontenot to fail to sign a major free agent to help, then doubling up on quarterbacks in the draft before picking Trice in the third round.

So, now it’s up to Smith and Rodgers to coach more production out of a modestly resourced group.