Despite having only played 2 games, the 2014 Atlanta Falcons have a clear and visible problem rushing the passer.
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The Falcons have never been renowned for their pass rushing dominanceunder Mike Smith and, with the exception of ex-Falcon John Abraham, haven’t featured a single player fans can count on to deliver double digit sacks per season. The offseason hire of defensive line coach Bryan Cox, along with the additions of Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson and second round pick Ra’Shede Hageman, were supposed to shore up the Falcons run defence and allow us to freely send our raw but exciting linebacker at the opposing quarterback.
Through two games, the system change can only be seen as a complete failure. The Atlanta Falcons rank last in the league in quarterback pressure, having recorded 0 sacks, and have allowed the most rushing touchdowns in the league. Atlanta roll into Thursday’s divisional matchup with Tampa Bay as the only team in the league to have not yet recorded a sack, facing an offensive line that has allowed an abundance of pressure, including 4 sacks, on new starting quarterback Josh McCown. Something’s got to give.
The Buccaneers’ offensive line is clearly a work in progress, and 2014 looks to be a season of learning on the job for the newly assembled group. Free agent acquisition Anthony Collins has begun his first season as a permanent starting left tackle, C Evan Dietrich-Smith signed in the offseason, RG Patrick Omameh is in his sophomore year in the league and the Tampa Bay front office made a Week 1 trade to acquire All Pro veteran LG Logan Mankins from the Patriots. It’s also been somewhat of a baptism of fire for the group, having faced the fierce defensive fronts of Carolina and St Louis. Whilst Falcons fans may bemoan the ability of Atlanta’s offensive line to keep Matt Ryan upright, Tampa Bay is actually performing worse than Mike Tice’s group in terms of QB hits and sacks this season.
In watching the pressures and sacks the Bucs’ line has allowed, two things immediately stand out. Firstly, they are very susceptible to pressure up the middle and secondly, RT Demar Dotson is having a tough time picking up the blitz. This season only one sack can be attributed to quarterback error when, against the Panthers, QB Josh McCown held the ball for far too long and allowed a double teamed Greg Hardy to turn from upfield and hit him from behind. The other three sacks allowed have stemmed from good interior push, and only one involved sending more than four pass rushers.
“In watching the pressure and sacks the Bucs’ line has allowed, you can tell they are susceptible to pressure up the middle.”
Two of the sacks allowed by Tampa Bay came from the defense showing heavy pressure, and the new group relying on communication to pick up the pass rushers. In Week 1, the Panthers showed pressure for large portion of the game, which generated a lot of uncertainty amongst the Tampa Bay pass protecters. For example, on a 3rd and 12 with the Bucs in field goal range, Carolina sent out four defensive linemen, and had both Luke Keuchly and Thomas Davis standing at the line of scrimmage. Despite showing 6 pass rushers, the Panthers only sent Keuchly and two of the linemen, leaving Davis and the remaining two to feign a pass rush but quickly drop back into coverage. The delayed reaction of the newly assembled group allowed Keuchly to knife through the offensive line, whereby he easily swum past Doug Martin and had taken McCown down before the QB had gone to his second read.
All in all it was a lightning fast sack and highlighted that there is the opportunity for a free lane to the QB due to poor communication across a new unit. Similarly, in Week 2 the Rams recorded two sacks (one of which was nullified by an offside penalty), both when showing pressure at the line. In the sack that was nullified, safety TJ McDonald lines up over the tight end before shifting inside and simply turning the corner too quickly for the right tackle to compete with. Similar to the Keuchly sack, poor communication ensures that the blitzing defender is through one on one with a running back, this time Bobby Rainey, and McDonald quickly beats him to bring down McCown. The second sack is shared between both Rams DTs, and is generated from St Louis showing 5 pass rushers, but only sending four. A strong inside push from both the Rams’ tackles forces the offensive line back and, despite being in the shotgun, McCown’s pocket is collapsed around him before the defenseengulfs the QB. The Panthers and Rams are stacked along the defensive line, yet neither team recorded a sack based on the efforts of one individual. These sacks show that smart play design and deception (particularly when showing pressure and testing the Bucs’ communication) are far more effective than individual efforts from defensive linemen.
The play that should give most Atlanta Falcons fans hope is in fact the first sack that Tampa Bay allowed in 2014. Dwan Edwards is lined up at DT in a regular 4-3 look, just over the right guard. The ball is snapped, and Edwards pushes inside, before switching outside with the Panthers’ DE. The move confuses the Buccaneers’ RG and RT, as they react slowly and both move to pick up the DE who stunted inside, allowing Edwards a free run at the quarterback and a sack on the first drive of the game. The reason this play is important is that it is very similar to one defensive coordinator Mike Nolan had visible success with in Atlanta’s Week 1 matchup with New Orleans. Nolan called a variation of this move several times on both sides of the formation, gaining particular success in the third quarter when Jonathan Babineaux and KroyBiermann pulled the same inside-out switch and allowed Babineaux to round the left tackle and bring Drew Brees down. Unfortunately, the play was called back for a downfield defensive holding penalty, but this confusion at the line of scrimmage is clearly a move in the Falcons’ system which has also been proven effective against the Buccaneers.
The Falcons have a lot of energy and potential across their front 7, but lack a single player that can consistently get into the backfield. A combination of interior pressure to collapse the pocket and some sleight of hand in the trenches will be needed to bring down the quarterback. Surely the Falcons will notch a sack at some point – why not this week?