The Falcons’ pass rush went from being anemic to having a pulse last season.
Beyond the emergence of linebacker Vic Beasley, the Falcons continued to struggle to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
To improve the pass rush, the Falcons added defensive tackle Dontari Poe in free agency and are primed to select a pass-rusher in the NFL draft, which is set for April 27-29 in Philadelphia.
“I’m excited about adding Dontari to the defensive front,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “We are definitely getting closer to the vision that we would like to play as a team, one that is lit up by competitiveness and toughness.”
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 defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who had three sacks in the Super Bowl, in the middle of the defense can add to the pass rush.
“Both are real-active inside players,” Quinn said. “When you play a four-man front, you want to make sure that you can affect the quarterback in the pass game with your rush and be able to drop and play four underneath, or however you want to play your coverages, without having to devout an extra player to do that.”
Quinn had to blitz and send more than four players too often last season. He’d prefer to rush with only four players.
“That allows you the flexibility to do things,” Quinn said. “We are really pumped about where Grady Jarrett is going. We think the quickness and the movement that he has (is elite). We are equally as pumped about Dontari being on board and to see all of the things he can bring.”
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.
“He’s played terrifically as a nose tackle in a 3-4 front during his time at Kansas City,” Quinn said. “I evaluated him on the plays he was really getting up field. I tried to inter-cut that into the Atlanta clips to show how he would play in our system.”
Some contend that there has been a dip in Poe’s play since he had back surgery in August 2015 to fix a herniated disc in his back. The Falcons did their due diligence on Poe’s injury history.
“When the medical side was comfortable on their end, that allowed us to go full steam ahead,” Quinn said.
The Falcons registered their 34 sacks over 655 pass attempts last season. They had a sack per 4.9 pass attempt, which ranked 27th in the league. The Falcons had 19 sacks over 561 pass attempts in 2015. They had a sack per 3.3 pass attempt, which ranked last (32nd) in the league.
In 2016, when you count the hurries and quarterback hits, the Falcons affected the quarterback on 255.5 of 655 pass attempts (39 percent). Beasley led the team with 16.5 hits and 33.5 hurries. With his sacks, he affected the quarterback on 65.5 plays.
In 2015, the Falcons had 19 sacks, 70 hurries and 75 hits (164 plays) on 561 pass attempts for (29.2 percent).
The 34 sacks were the post by a Falcons team since the 37 in 2007.
In search for more help, Quinn, a former defensive line coach, went to Philadelphia to work out players at Temple and Villanova and then took a flight to Youngstown, Ohio, to work out Youngstown State standout Derek Rivers on March 16. He worked out Villanova’s Tanoh Kpassagon and Temple’s Hasson Reddick while in Philadelphia.
Reddick projects as an outside linebacker and as a first-round pick by NFLDraftScout.com.
Rivers projects as a defensive end and a second- or third-round pick, and Kpassagon projects as a defensive end and a third- or fourth-round pick.
“We had a good session with those guys,” Quinn said.
The draft is considered deep in pass-rushing talent. If the Falcons move in another direction with their first-round pick, the 31st overall, they’ll have options later in the draft.
“So just for instance, say they’re looking in the second or third round for an edge guy,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “I would tell you that DeMarcus Walker from Florida State is intriguing, and he’s going to go in the second or third round. Tarell Basham from Ohio University, he’s a really good football player, and he can play for somebody this year as a rookie.”
The Falcons’ defense finished ranked 25th overall (371.2 yards per game), 17th against the run (104.5 yards) and 27th against the pass (266.7 yards).
An improved pass rush will help the unit. The defense featured four rookies, three second-year players and free safety Ricardo Allen, who was in his second year at that position, last season.
“Can now, (strong safety) Keanu (Neal) bring somebody else with him who tries to get the ball out,” Quinn said. “The communication piece that (middle linebacker) Deon (Jones) took over, he’s in a space where he wants to go for it in the biggest way and not be complacent.
“When I hear those comments from him and how hard he’s working now, that lights me up to know that he, by the way he’s working, he’s going to bring somebody else with him.”
Quinn credited linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel with the development of the young defense last season. They worked hard to point out their mistakes.
“Not only are there some good players in that group, but I think there are some emerging leaders that will come out of that group,” Quinn said.
The youth of the unit is viewed as a plus.
“We have 63 of 64 guys now (under contract), and 32 of them are going into year two to four,” Quinn said. “That fires (general manager) Thomas (Dimitroff) and I up that we are going to try to (bring) them through and try to develop them together.”
The Falcons start their offseason strength-and-conditioning program April 17. However, they are set to hold a players-only camp in Florida before they report.
While the Falcons’ offense led the way to the NFC title last season, the team’s brain trust knows that the defense has major room for improvement.
“We are definitely closer to the vision that I’d like to be at,” Quinn said. “I say that because I feel the physicality and the turnovers that we’re (creating). Those two pieces are coming alive. I feel the speed. I feel the communication piece.”
FALCONS’ 2016 PASS RUSH
Player; Sacks; Hits; Hurries; Total
Vic Beasley; 15.5; 16.5; 33.5; 65.5
Adrian Clayborn; 4.5; 15.5; 17; 37
Dwight Freeney; 3; 9.5; 20; 32.5
Grady Jarrett; 3; 9.5; 17; 29.5
Brooks Reed; 2; 7.5; 12.5; 22
Ra’Shede Hageman; 2; 4; 4.5; 10.5
Courtney Upshaw; 1; 3; 6; 10
Jonathan Babineaux; 0; 1; 7.5; 8.5
Brian Poole; 1; 3; 2.5; 6.5
Derrick Shelby; 0; 3; 3.5; 6.5
Tyson Jackson; 0; 1.5; 4.5; 6
Desmond Trufant; 2; 2; 0; 4
Deion Jones; 0; 3.5; 3.5
Philip Wheeler; 0; 2; 1; 3
De’Vondre Campbell; 0; 0; 2; 2
Paul Worrilow; 0.5; 1; 1.5
Kemal Ishmael; 0; 0; 1; 1
Cliff Matthews; 0; 0; 1; 1
LaRoy Reynolds; 0; 0; .5; .5
Team; 34; 81.5; 135.5; 255.5