Last season, the Falcons could not pressure the quarterback.
The Falcons produced only 19 sacks, the lowest mark in the NFL since 2009. So in free agency, the team signed one of the most prolific pass rushers in league history: defensive end Dwight Freeney.
With the 15-year vet on the squad, the Falcons (7-4) have jumped to 15th in the league in sacks, with 24 this season. Freeney’s three sacks in 10 games do not put fear in opposing left tackles the way his number once did, but he ranks third on the team. Now that defensive end Adrian Clayborn is out or the season after surgery to repair a knee injured last week, Freeney will be asked to take on an increased role, something he said he is well prepared for.
“It’s a rotation sometimes,” Freeney said. “Every man in that 53 roster matters. So you have to make sure that your game is tight at all times and ready to roll because you could be out there and having to have to make plays for this team.”
Going into December with Clayborn (second on the team with 4.5 sacks) on the shelf, Freeney’s contributions on the field will mean more to the Falcons. But what Freeney adds in the film room and in practice might have an even bigger impact on the team.
Freeney said he looks to help teach the game to younger players the same way it was taught to him when he arrived in the NFL. He added that although guys may be competing with one another for playing time, nothing matters if the team is losing, so he wants to use his experience to help explain the mental aspect of the game to his teammates.
Because Freeney has “a lot of miles on (his) wheels,” the Falcons have limited him in practice. Although Freeney is not taking snaps some days, defensive coordinator Richard Smith said he still participates by showing guys what to do. When another player is explaining the intricacies of the game, Smith said it is more powerful than when a coach does it.
“I love him in the building because he is a true pro,” Smith said. “The game means so much to him. … You got to listen to him — all our coaches do. What I’m most pleased about him, is the way he studies the game, and then that way, it carries over to the other people.”
One of the players Freeney’s lessons have seemed to help most is Vic Beasley Jr. The second-year linebacker has emerged as one of the league’s best at attacking the quarterback, ranking fifth in the NFL with 9.5 sacks. This comes after a rookie season in which he had only four sacks in 16 games.
Smith said Beasley’s understanding of the game has improved simply by playing for a year, but Smith and coach Dan Quinn also look at what Freeney brings to the meeting room as an additional factor behind Beasley’s success.
“We did not bring Dwight in here to be a mentor to Vic,” Quinn said. “We brought Dwight in here to rush. A byproduct of that has been their relationship. It’s been on that, Vic is somebody that watches and will ask, but it took a little while for that relationship to develop.”
Freeney said Beasley has all the physical tools needed to become an elite pass rusher, and he wants to help him become even better.
It’s not only Beasley who has benefited from Freeney, though. Beasley said the entire defensive line has learned and grown.
When the Kansas City Chiefs (8-3) come to the Georgia Dome on Sunday, Freeney will be needed to help fill the hole left in Clayborn’s absence and utilize his expertise on the field even more. However, Freeney said his insight better serves others.
“This knowledge that I have and experience, it’s not for me,” he said. “Yeah, it helps me make plays at the older age I am now, but it’s really for the younger guys. For them to understand what I’m doing so they can grow and they can feed their families, and they can do the things they need to do in their career.”