If you were describing a weakness of the Atlanta Falcons the last five years to a person that had been living off the grid, it’s almost a guaranteed certainty that lack of pass rush would be first and foremost on that list. It’s been abysmal, terrible, awful, and any other negative adjective you’d like to insert. The Falcons pass rush has consisted of two players the past five years: DE John Abraham and DT Jonathan Babineaux. It’s fairly shameful that not one player has had no more success than they have over a five year period. While it’s unfair to go only by sacks as an indicator, it’s one of the few easily seen proofs that fans have when trying to gauge pass rush. Coaches will talk all the time about “disrupting a passer’s rhythm, getting him off his spot, or QB hits,” but that only comes up when they’re trying to justify something. Here’s a list of the Falcons sack rankings the last 5 years, and in relation, their rank vs. the pass:
2008 — 11th (34) — 21st
2009 — 26th (28) — 28th
2010 — 20th (31) — 22nd
2011 — 19th (33) — 20th
2012 — 28th (29) — 23rd
Some very disturbing trends emerge here that most fans already knew. First of all, the Falcons pass rush, at least in terms of sacks, was the best when this new regime took over way back in 2008. That team was made up of a ton of journeymen on the defensive line and a makeshift linebacker corps. In fact, only Jonathan Babineaux remains from that defense. Since nearing the top ten in year one, they’ve sunk to the bottom almost every single year since. It’s true that they’ve come close to the actual number of sacks each year, but the trends says that the rest of the NFL are getting better at rushing the passer, while the Falcons stay the same or worse. Nolan’s first year as defensive coordinator can’t be looked upon in a vacuum, but it was the second worse sack total in that five year span.
And even though there’s a ton of factors at play here and it’s no simple and direct correlation, the pass defense has been mired in mediocrity (‘08, ‘10, ‘11) or the true bottom feeders of the league (‘09, ‘12). It’s likely no accident that the two worst years in pass defense were also the two worst years in pass rush by sacks. Although it could never be considered great, the two best years in sack totals were the two “best” years in pass defense. It’s not an exact correlation, but the Falcons on defense have been mediocre at best and downright awful at worst, at least in these two categories. Something’s amiss when you defense is getting worse instead of better.
Just to take a look at what these two players have meant to the Falcons defensive pass rush, the following is a list of total team sacks, sacks made by Abraham and Babineaux, the highest sack total by any other player, and what percent Abraham and Babineaux made up:
Year – Total Sacks – Abraham / Babineaux Sacks – Percent – Other Player Sack
2008 – 34 – Abraham (16.5) / Babineaux (3.5) – 59% – Chauncey Davis (4)
2009 – 28 – Babineaux (6) / Abraham (5.5) – 43% – Biermann (5)
2010 – 31 – Abraham (13) / Babineaux (4) – 55% – Biermann (3)
2011 – 32 – Abraham (9.5) / Babineaux (1) – 34% – Weatherspoon (4)
2012 – 29 – Abraham (10) / Babineaux (3.5) – 48% – Biermann (4)
Perhaps the final percentage breakdown isn’t as shocking as fans may think, but it’s still disturbing to see how dependent the pass rush has been on Abraham and Babineaux, especially the former DE. If the Falcons already have high numbers and stack up pretty well league wide it wouldn’t be that bad, but when you’re one of the weakest in the NFL at rushing the passer, than that’s a pretty scary thought. Furthermore, when you take into account that Abraham is no longer here and Babineaux turns 32 in November, it’s gets even more worrisome. Finally, the most troublesome part might be looking at the numbers from any other player not named Abraham or Babineaux. In 5 years, no player has collared more than 5 sacks, but the average is closer to four. Again, it wouldn’t be a big deal if you have a ton of other players with sacks, but that’s not the case either.
This is one of the biggest questions facing the Falcons defense overall in 2013. As seen above, John Abraham has been almost soley responsible for the Falcons pass rush the last many years. It’s true that the former DE had his ups and downs, usually blowing out one year followed by a lesser year, but in general he’s been a rock for the Falcons rushing the passer. Flowery Branch decided to let go of Abraham for his price (something every other team apparently has had some issue with) and brought in Osi Umenyiora in free agency. The former Giant is set to turn 32 in November and is coming off a less-than-stellar year in 2012.
The two-time Super Bowl champ found himself on the wrong side of a rotation with Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck. He only made four starts and pulled down 6 sacks. Going by a pure statistical perspective, fans shouldn’t get their hope up of Umenyiora blowing up and having a great year. In fact, there may be some concern on whether he can even match Abraham’s 10 sacks from 2012. Umenyiora’s last few season sack totals look as follows: 2012 – 6; 2011 – 9; 2010 – 11.5; 2009 – 7; 2008 – injury; 2007 – 13. The trendline seems to be heading down and just hoping that Umenyiora replaces Abraham’s 10 sacks might be pushing it. Of course there’s a thought that with a fresh start and more snaps, that the former Troy product can blow up again, but most fans shouldn’t hold their breath.
Assuming that Umenyiora is penciled in at one defensive end spot, that leaves the other one wide open. Most in the media are slotting Biermann in since he’s the most veteran and he’s had the most snaps there the past several years. However, it seems that Biermann will be getting his own special role that includes more looks at linebacker and standing up more than he has his hand in the dirt. If you take the normal presumption that lower drafted rookies don’t make a huge impact in year one, than neither Malliciah Goodman or Stansly Maponga will play large roles. That leaves 3rd year Cliff Matthews and 2nd year Jonathan Massaquoi as the favorites to take over the other DE position.
Matthews may well be a candidate to take the starting spot at the DE spot, but the circumstance regarding the former Gamecock is very intriguing. Mike Smith said in a recent news conference that they tasked Matthews with gaining between 10-15 lbs over the off-season and that he was close to his goal. He was already at 268 give or take and that would put him between 280 and 285. That starts getting closer to playing more of an inside role, likely at a 5 technique type in a 3-4 defense. Perhaps they just wanted him to bulk up. However, it seems that Massaquoi is in the best position to gain the most in 2013. He had the most impressive rush stats from college, pulling down 31 tackles for a loss and 20 total sacks. You never know who will emerge from training camp, but right now, Massaquoi looks to be in the strongest position.
Matthews More of a 5-Technique or DT?
How Much to Expect from Rookies?
Biermann More LB than DE?
A Collective Effort?
Rest of post to come very soon……….