The Atlanta Falcons entered last season as Super Bowl contenders, but it was not too long into the season that those dreams were crushed. The Falcons could not protect their quarterback and Matt Ryan spent most of the season running for his life. While the offensive line had big problems, there is another area that the Falcons need to improve if they hope to win the NFC South.
The Falcons share a division with the New Orleans Saints, who are the front runners to win the division and are favorites to win the Super Bowl. If the Falcons want to win the division they will have to find a way to get Drew Brees on his back. The Falcons’ defense finished 29th in rankings overall, 26th against the run and dead last against the pass. So general manager Thomas Dimitroff went to work in free agency, adding starters up front (former Kansas City defensive end Tyson Jackson and former Miami defensive tackle Paul Soliai) and depth in the secondary (cornerbacks Javier Arenas from Arizona and Josh Wilson from Washington). Dimitroff failed to add a pass-rusher, though, and that’s a problem. By adjusted sack rate metrics, the Falcons had the league’s worst pass rush last season. Although all of the focus is on the Falcons rebuilding the offensive line, if they don’t get a good pass rush it could be another long season.
The players that the Falcons currently have on the roster are aging and ineffective. Osi Umenyiora led the team last season with 7.5 sacks, but he’ll be 33 in November, and he hasn’t cracked double-digit sacks since 2010. Plus, the Falcons seem likely to use more 3-4 looks, which might limit Umenyiora to a specialized third-and-long role. Nobody else on the roster has ever collected more than six sacks in a season. That is not good news for a team that is changing defensive schemes.
The Falcons will need to find the right players to fit into the current schemes. Most 3-4 teams get pass rush from their outside linebackers, but it’s not even clear whom the Falcons will be starting at that position. Jonathan Massaquoi, a part-time end for his first two seasons in the league, is a favorite, and he has shown flashes of potential (four sacks and 19 hurries in only 528 defensive snaps last season). The team also drafted defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman and linebacker Prince Shembo (19.5). If the Falcons are lucky, one of those players could turn into the edge rusher they so badly need. The Falcons have a lot of work to do and it all starts on the defensive line, not the offensive line.
The Falcons have the overall talent to win the NFC South, but they will fail miserably if they do not improve both sides of the football in the trenches. They have made the right moves in the draft to improve the offensive line, but the defensive line will still be a major concern. If they can improve that area they can be division champs again.
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