Falcons' pass rush, the NFL's worst in '21, has shown progress

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Geno Smith sat in the pocket often Sunday with enough time to figure out the Atlanta Falcons. It sometimes looked like last season, when Atlanta could not force pressure, letting a quarterback play surgeon against its secondary.

But then the Falcons figured it out. In the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks, in the Falcons’ first win of the season, they started connecting.

Atlanta blitzed five times, making contact with Smith three times and sacking him twice. The pressure helped force a Richie Grant interception that sealed the game.

It was noticeable because of what wasn’t there a year ago and how that’s changed. Falcons coach Arthur Smith said Monday he is “happy with where we are trending,” but didn’t want to compare his two teams.

“We know what it was last year and we know what was being said about our pass rush coming into this season,” edge rusher Quinton Bell said. “So we use that as motivation.”

Atlanta had 18 sacks last season – 11 fewer than the NFL’s next-worst team. No player had more than 4.5 sacks, and that was Dante Fowler Jr., who underwhelmed in Atlanta and is now in Dallas.

Bell said they heard daily from their position coach, Ted Monachino, and from each other how they couldn’t have a repeat of last season. In the offseason, Monachino had his edge rushers watch other NFL players to help add things to their games.

So far, it looks like it has worked.

The Falcons’ seven sacks through three games ties them for No. 12 in the NFL along with nine other teams. The Falcons are sacking opponents on 5.8% of dropbacks, No. 18 in the league. While these numbers might sound average, it's a sign of progress compared to last season.

“It’s not more about answering questions,” rookie edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie said. “It was about showing we could pass rush as a group.”

Atlanta is doing this blitzing 24.8% of the time, just below the league average. When the Falcons blitz, defensive coordinator Dean Pees has been trying to bring pressure from everywhere. His 16.5% blitz percentage using defensive backs is tied for fourth in the NFL.

In something Pees might not like, the Falcons aren’t getting to the quarterback incredibly often -- Atlanta’s 19.8% success rate is above only the New Orleans Saints -- and are making contact with the quarterback only 16.2% of the time.

Quarterbacks are averaging 2.49 seconds in the pocket and 2.71 seconds before a pass against the Falcons, both around the league average.

Atlanta’s pass rush win rate is slightly better than last season. In 2021, the Falcons won 34.2% of the time. This season, Atlanta has won 36.8%. It is not in the top half of the league – No. 24 overall – but it is indicative of headway made.

“It’s been a change in mentality,” defensive lineman Ta’Quon Graham said. “We have a different mentality paired with Grady [Jarrett]’s experience being in the league eight years.”

The mentality has been about cohesiveness trying to affect passing lanes and confuse offensive linemen. While things don’t necessarily revolve around Jarrett, they often do.

Of Jarrett’s 91 pass-rush plays at end and tackle -- he has been used as both -- 64.8% have come against double-teams, the 16th-highest rate in the league. Only the Rams’ Aaron Donald and Kansas City’s Chris Jones have been double-teamed more than the 59 plays Jarrett has.

Jarrett has won 10.6% of the time there, one of 38 NFL players to win more than 10% against double-teams. That list includes Ebiketie, who is winning 11.1% against double-teams, although he has faced it only 13 times.

Against single blockers, Jarrett wins 27.8% of the time. In totality, Jarrett has a pass rush win rate of 15.4% – only 39 players have a pass rush win rate of 15% or higher, including Ebiketie, who is 19th at 20.5%,

When Jarrett gets the first pressure, which has happened 8.8% of his pass rushes, it led to four sacks and Grant’s game-sealing interception Sunday. Jarrett’s 2.5 sacks already eclipse his one sack last season and are more than any Falcons player from 2021 other than Fowler.

“Of course it’s going to start, like teams are going to see him,” edge rusher Lorenzo Carter said. “But that’s the thing. If y’all want to focus on him, then we got other guys coming off the edge or coming on the inside.”

Part of why this has worked, why the Falcons are already more than a third of the way to last season’s sack total, is because of the other players. Carter, signed in the offseason from the Giants, already has 1.5 sacks and Ebiketie has been emerging. Five players from three positions – defensive line, edge rusher and linebacker -- have combined for the seven sacks. Two defensive backs – Richie Grant and Mike Ford – already have quarterback hits, too.

Pees said after the Saints game he was “anxious to see where we were from last year,” both with his pass rush and his defense in general and while it’s not where he’d want it to be consistently yet, it’s clear there’s one thing showing.

Progress. Considering where Atlanta was last season, that’s a fair place for the Falcons to start.