Atlanta Falcons Q1 Review: Defensive Line

Falcons Defensive Line
Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With the Atlanta Falcons in a bye week, I am taking a moment to review the performance of each position group so far. I’ve already covered quarterback, the offensive line, and the skill position players. Today I’m turning my attention to the other side of the ball, starting with the defensive line.

Before I dive into player-specific analysis, I want to share a few team defensive statistics that will set the table for this article and the upcoming articles on the linebackers and defensive backs.

Team Total Defense Stats

Atlanta Falcons Defensive Production per Pro Football Reference


Defensive Advanced Metrics

Advanced Defensive Metrics per rbsdm.com

As you can see, the Falcons haven’t been a particularly efficient defense. The raw yardage totals are better than they’ve been in years. However, raw production statistics can hide significant deficiencies. Instead, if you look at DVOA, EPA, or Success Rate, it becomes crystal clear that this defense hasn’t been overly effective.

The 2020 Atlanta Falcons defense set the bar so low it would be near impossible to perform worse. Having that as a reference point, the 2021 squad has actually been an improvement. Dean Pees is a legendary defensive coordinator. The feeling is it will only be a matter of time before Atlanta has a respectable defensive unit. There have been brief flashes, but this group is pieced together with primarily journeymen and late-round draft picks. Pees is a great coach, but he’s not a magician.

The Falcons defensive line is probably the weakest defensive group for the Atlanta Falcons. Since the departure of John Abraham, Atlanta has failed to find an edge rusher to fill his shoes. Grady Jarrett is a superstar, but there is only so much he can do on his own. It hasn’t been a complete disaster, but this isn’t anything approaching a fearsome defensive line. Let’s take a look at the pass-rushing statistics (per PFF) of every lineman (defined as IDL/Edge) that’s collected a QB pressure in 2021.

2021 Falcons Defensive Line Pass Rushing Stats

Atlanta Falcons Pass Rusher Stats per Pro Football Focus

Dante Fowler Jr. Flourishes After Flop

Fowler signed a massive $15 million per year contract with the Falcons in 2020. As most big-money free agents tend to do in Atlanta, he fell flat on his face. Lingering injuries sapped his athleticism and adjusting to life without Aaron Donald proved to be a challenge Fowler couldn’t overcome. Ultimately he earned $5 million for each of his three sacks, falling grossly short of what Thomas Dimitroff envisioned when he was signed.

The newly hired Terry Fontenot wasted no time renegotiating that albatross of a contract. He voided the 2022 season and converted most of Fowler’s 2021 contract to incentives tied to his sack production. It gave the cash-strapped Falcons much-needed cap relief. It also provided Fowler the means to earn back his money on the way to another shot at free agency. Everyone wins.

Fowler is Incentivized

Fowler appears to be making the most of this opportunity so far this season. He’s easily been the best of a bad group of pass rushers in Atlanta. He hasn’t been uber-productive, but he’s already totaled a pair of sacks and forced fumbles through five games. Per PFF, his pass-rush win rate (one of the best indicators of value added from pass rushers) indicated he hasn’t been particularly efficient. Of players with at least 60 pass-rush snaps, he ranks 70th in the NFL with a 14.1% win rate. His 13 total pressures are the 54th most for qualifying defensive linemen.

These aren’t particularly inspiring statistics, but he’s made timely plays as a pass rusher and run defender. His fourth-quarter sack of Daniel Jones set the Falcons up for their first win of the season. The difference in his performance between last year and this year is night and day. He isn’t dominant, but he is a disruptive force if opposing teams don’t account for him. That’s not the output we hoped for when he arrived in Atlanta, but, as with everything Falcons this year, we are looking for progress, not perfection.

Fowler has been surprisingly effective against the run, leading the Falcons defensive line with nine tackles with an average depth of tackle of 1.9 yards. He plays out of control at times and finds himself on the ground more often than he should, but his burst is clearly on a different level than the other edge defenders on the roster. Each sack he notches this season complicated the salary cap for the team in 2022, but it’s worth it knowing the defense has a chance to get off the field on third down. His improved play and how the team approaches him in the offseason will be a compelling storyline to track this year.

Grady Jarrett Following in His Father’s Footsteps

Much like there must always be a Stark in Winterfell, the Falcons must always have an elite defensive talent wasting away on a bad team. Jesse Tuggle held that honor for over a decade, and now, twenty years later, his son has assumed the mantle. Jarrett has earned universal respect from fans and pundits alike, but Atlanta has never been able to surround him with enough support to capitalize on his immense potential. Jarrett continues to toil away, playing at an elite level even if his raw production isn’t always reflective of his ability.

Grady isn’t quite as dominant as he’s been over the last few years in production and advanced metrics. In 2020, he had a pass rush win rate of 15.2% and averaged roughly 3.5 pressures per game. So far this season, he’s posted a win rate of 12.3% and is averaging 2.2 pressures a game. This dip isn’t a sign of declining play. Turn on the tape, and his skill is evident. However, with no other real threats playing next to him, teams are free to focus solely on him. As good as Grady is, there is no way for him to defeat an offense single-handedly.

Despite the singular focus from offensive coordinators, Grady still manages to make his presence know. He’s notched a sack and ties Fowler for the most tackles along the line. His average depth of tackle is 2.6 yards, comparable to the other elite defensive tackles in the NFL. He’s played an outsized role in limiting Daniel Jones and the Giants’ offense in week 3, paving the way for the Falcons to grab their first win.

The Falcons aren’t likely to find a clear solution to their pass rush problems this season, but if Atlanta makes any progress, it will start with Jarrett’s game-wrecking ability inside. Let’s all hope Fontenot finds ways to help him while he’s still here.

Ogundeji Has Earned More Playing Time on the Falcons Defensive Line

The Falcons drafted Adetokunbo Ogundeji late in the 2021 draft. At best, most expected him to be a deep reserve, with a redshirt season as a healthy scratch as his most likely role with the team. However, he flashed enough potential in the preseason to earn his way onto the active roster in week one and has played in every game since. He’s had a limited role, playing behind Fowler and Means, but has been the go-to player as the third man in the rotation.

He’s taken advantage of his opportunities, earning a team-high 16.7% pass rush win rate and notching a sack. Despite the small sample size, he’s outplayed every edge rusher aside from Fowler, and I suspect we’ll see his usage get ramped up as we move further into the year.

He isn’t overly athletic, but his length and strength set him apart from the other edge defenders on the roster. His inexperience shows at times, but the only way to get him up to speed is to give him snaps. His efficiency ratings are likely to drop with higher usage, but the disparity between him and Steven Means is apparent. At this point, limiting his snaps limits the defense. Give the rook the extra time!

The Leftovers

The rest of this defensive unit ranges from below-average to god-awful. I do my best to avoid disparaging our players too much, but it isn’t easy to find many positives to mention. Steven Means is likely the best of the rest, despite leading the edge defenders in pass-rushing snaps while only registering seven pressures. His 7.8% pass rush win rate is, to put it politely, sub-optimal. He’s been up and down in the run game, alternating between blowing his run fits entirely and dragging ball carriers down at the line of scrimmage.

Confusingly, Dean Pees continues to drop him into coverage an excessive amount of time, where he is a complete liability. Means is a consummate professional, but he is better as a rotational piece and special teams ace. The sooner the Falcons can move away from using him as a starter, the better.

From Bad to Worse for the Falcons Defensive Line

Johnathan Bullard and Ta’Quon Graham round out the primary rotational players. Neither has proven to be huge liabilities, but neither is really moving the needle either. Graham only found his way to the field over the last couple of weeks, so there is a chance he develops into more of a threat as time passes. Still, Bullard and Graham have a total of nine tackles and three QB pressures so far. It’s reasonable to assume a massive leap from either isn’t particularly likely this season.

Tyeler Davison, the other “starter” along the interior, is easily the most replaceable player on the roster. He’s routinely blow off the line against the run and has been utterly invisible as a pass rusher. His 47.3 run defense grade is the lowest among players on the Falcons defensive line.With a 1.2% pass rush win rate, they may be better off setting up a strong box fan in his place. Maybe the breeze would dry out the opposing QB’s eyes.

Unmet Expectations

Marlon Davidson and John Cominsky are two players Falcons fans expected more from this season. Cominsky has been a healthy scratch lately, while Davidson has been hampered with injury most of the season. There is an argument that Cominsky has been miscast as a nose tackle, but if the coaches repeatedly choose to play Johnathan Bullard over Cominsky every week, that has to carry some weight.

For Marlon, this is the second consecutive season that injuries have kept him from seeing the field. It’s too early to write him off as an injury bust, but he has yet to live up to the pedigree we were sold on when he was drafted in the second round.

That leaves one final player to mention, and I saved him for last because he’s one of my favorite Falcons. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner initially won me over with excellent special teams play. Since, he’s found ways to be productive as a pass rusher when given opportunities. He is tied with Dante Fowler for the most sacks on the team, despite only seeing a quarter of the pass-rushing snaps. Am I here to convince you JTM is a world-class player that just needs a shot? No, I’m not delusional.

However, he has always found his way into the backfield when given opportunities. The other players ahead of him aren’t exactly DPOY candidates. I hardly see the harm in giving him more opportunities. It’s a homer stance for me, but I love an underdog who’s shown he’ll put in the dirty work. Give the kid a shot.

Playing (and Praying) for 2022

This group of defensive linemen is the weak link on a bad defense. There isn’t much to work with on this roster despite Dean Pees’ ability to scheme his teams into pressure. Grady Jarrett and Dante Fowler are doing yeoman’s work, but unless one of the young players on the roster can emerge as a complementary piece, this unit will be a constant liability this year. Good defenses are excellent in coverage or rushing the passer; great defenses can do both. Atlanta can’t do either effectively. We knew this group would be a work in progress, but we haven’t witnessed much forward motion aside from minimal gains.

My biggest fear isn’t the lack of pass rush either. The Falcons have one of the highest rushing success rates allowed this season. It hasn’t been the reason for a loss yet, but if a team decides to lean on their run game, I am confident the Falcons defensive line will struggle to contain it. This team needs to add size, power, and explosiveness to its defensive front. Depending on undersized linebackers to perform well when the defensive interior can’t control the line of scrimmage is futile. Expecting a shaky secondary to cover with zero pass rush support is a recipe for disaster.

Luckily, aside from the Bills, Bucs, and Cowboys, the Falcons don’t have any dominant offenses on the upcoming schedule. Hopefully, the coaches can use this season to build up some young depth before Fontenot invests heavily in rebuilding an incredibly sub-par unit.

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