Vic Beasley wasn’t merely an edge rusher last season, any more than a piranha is merely a fish. The man devoured quarterbacks. He factored into every win. His numbers were dizzying -- 15-1/2 sacks to lead the NFL, 15 quarterback hits, 28 hurries, 10 tackles for loss, six forced fumbles, 70,000 dropped jaws weekly.
“When you’re a pass rusher, it’s always in the back of your mind – you want to put those numbers up,” he said. “Because I want to be the best there ever was. I want to be the best every play.”
The numbers this season have not been spectacular. It’s not all his fault.
The Falcons’ defensive end/outside linebacker recorded sacks in the season’s first two games, against Chicago and Green Bay, and he has only two since. But a hamstring strain against the Packers forced him to miss two games, and subsequent injuries to others, notably Duke Riley at strongside outside linebacker, prompted coach Dan Quinn to move Beasley into Riley’s spot, where he would frequently drop into pass coverage
We can debate whether taking a team’s best attack dog and turning him into a guard dog was the best decision.
The Falcons statistically have a top-10 defense in yards and points allowed. (I know that’s hard for some people to accept, but it’s right there in black and white.) But Beasley’s drop in sacks has unquestionably impacted the Falcons’ low takeaway total: He forced six fumbles, and his 28 hurries logically led to at least a couple of the 12 interceptions thrown by opposing quarterbacks last season. The Falcons had 22 takeaways. They have only 11 this season, which ranks next-to-last in the NFL.
The Falcons are 8-5, with three games left against NFC South opponents. Whether they make the playoffs, or how deep they go in the postseason, will depend in part on how significantly those numbers change.
That’s on the defense as a whole and Beasley in particular.
He’s back at home, at defensive end. He’ll likely rush the quarterback at least 90 percent of the snaps in these final weeks, now that the defense is getting healthier. Quinn doesn’t hesitate to suggest Beasley needs to pass rush at a higher level, but at least now he’ll be given that opportunity on a more full-time basis.
“For us and for him, there’s another spot to go to. We intend on doing that with more emphasis on him as a rusher,” said Quinn, a former defensive line coach who’s been working with Beasley on his technique.
“There’s definitely been less rushing opportunities, and some of that’s on me, based on what I thought we needed at the time. But to say he’s at the level we need him to be, we’re not there yet.”
Protecting and attacking the quarterback have long been keys to winning any football game. If Beasley can return to form, the Falcons could have one of the league’s best pass rushes, with rookie Takk McKinley coming off the other edge, as well as Grady Jarrett in the middle, and Adrian Clayborn and Brooks Reed in the mix.
Defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel felt the need to literally take his hat off to Beasley when asked about him the other day.
“You’re asking a guy who led the league in sacks to go drop in pass (coverage), after he’s coming off an injury,” he said. “He’s a phenomenal athlete, but when you’re asking him to do a lot of different things his numbers aren’t going to be the same because he’s taking one for the team.”
Beasley’s level of play isn’t where it needs to be. But Manuel said returning him to defensive end “where he’s most comfortable” will allow him to “get into a rhythm. When you’re rushing, whether you’re carrying the ball or rushing the passer, there’s a rhythm you have to get into.”
It was simpler at Clemson. Beasley was told to attack the quarterback probably 95 percent of his snaps.
“We were just going forward most of the time,” he said.
It’s also what he did a year ago. It’s what he did in the first two games. Then aspirations of matching those dizzying numbers of a year ago blew up. Not so coincidentally, the Falcons’ season has been a roller coaster.
Beasley was asked about the half-dozen strip-sacks that punctuated his season a year ago.
“Yeahhhhh,” he said, stretching out the word. “I’ve had moments this year where I came close and I tried to go for the ball and I missed. I just have to finish those.”
It would make a difference these next three weeks.
• Fresh “We Never Played The Game” podcast with Dale Murphy.