FLOWERY BRANCH — In the aftermath of the stunning decision to release Ray Edwards, there was a big hole on the Falcons’ depth chart for the first time this season.
Kroy Biermann, who was playing more than Edwards, slid into the No. 1 slot at left defensive end on the team’s unofficial depth chart.
Cliff Matthews, a special-teams standout, figures to benefit the most from Edwards’ release, followed by rookie Jonathan Massaquoi and fourth-year defensive end Lawrence Sidbury.
Massaquoi is listed as No. 2 behind Biermann, and Sidbury is listed as No. 2 behind John Abraham — followed by Matthews.
“They are all doing well,” defensive line coach Ray Hamilton said Thursday. “They have been practicing all year, but they haven’t been practicing on our side of the ball a whole lot because they’ve been doing mostly scout-team stuff.”
Edwards had played an average of 23 snaps per game. Biermann likely will take on eight of those plays, leaving about 15 snaps to be filled by the other defensive ends because the Falcons like to use a rotation to keep players fresh.
“Their mindset has changed a little bit this week,” Hamilton said. “They know they have a chance to play, and they are doing well.”
Matthews, a seventh-round pick in 2011, is the most similar in stature to Edwards, who played mostly against the run in the Falcons’ base 4-3 defense.
“Cliff is a big, strong and physical guy that we’ve always liked,” Hamilton said. “We think that he’s come along enough to get in there and get a few snaps.”
Massaquoi, a local product from Central Gwinnett High, is working to refine his skills. He was inactive for the first eight games of the season. He played five plays on special teams Sunday against New Orleans in his NFL debut.
Hamilton is high on Massaquoi.
“Massaquoi is a guy that’s got a lot of physical ability, a lot of good football instincts,” Hamilton said. “He’s just a raw kid right now. Hopefully, he’s learned enough to get in there. We’ll see what he can do.”
The Falcons need to improve on defense against the run and would like to ramp up their pass rush. Abraham leads the team with seven sacks, and Biermann has two.
Overall, the Falcons have 21 sacks, which is tied for 13th in the league with Indianapolis and New Orleans. Denver leads with 31 sacks. Also, the defense has given up 129.8 yards per game, which ranks 25th.
Sidbury has the most experience of the trio.
“His chances of playing are going up also,” Hamilton said.
The Falcons have pulled Matthews off some of the special teams in order for him to better focus on playing from scrimmage.
“He looks like the real deal,” Hamilton said. “He’s a guy that we’ve brought along slowly.”
The door clearly is open for Matthews, who played at South Carolina and was a second-team all-SEC pick in 2010.
“We need a big physical guy, so Cliff could be the one who mostly benefits by what has happened,” Hamilton said.
First-year defensive coordinator Mike Nolan uses some of his ends like 3-4 outside linebackers. Against the Saints, Biermann dropped into coverage 16 yards on one play. There are times when he stands up and blitzes or plays the run.
Sidbury would like to see some of that action, too.
“I’m comfortable with everything,” Sidbury said. “I’ve shown, in the times that I have gotten to play, that I’m comfortable with everything. I don’t have any uneasiness with anything. It’s fun to do. Yes, you have to think a little bit more, but I’m able to handle it with no problem.”
Matthews, who was inactive for all 16 games last season, clearly is excited about the opportunity.
“I’m ready,” said Matthews, who said he’s been getting in extra film work. “All I have to do is take advantage of the opportunity.”
Massaquoi had 20 sacks one season in junior college and was a standout at Troy.
“Jonathan is a very athletic defensive end,” coach Mike Smith said. “He’s an explosive player. He’s a strong guy. His role will probably have an opportunity to change a little bit this week.”
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