In March, the Falcons terminated the contract of defensive end John Abraham, who led the team with 10 sacks in 2012. To fill the pass-rushing void, Atlanta signed defensive end Osi Umenyiora 27 days later.
The Falcons also used a fourth-round pick on Clemson defensive end Malliciah Goodman and a fifth-round pick on Texas Christian defensive end Stansly Maponga in this year’s draft.
Will the addition of Umenyiora, Goodman and Maponga be enough to boost the Atlanta pass rush in 2013? The simple answer is no.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Abraham was the seventh-best 4-3 defensive end in the league last year at putting pressure on the quarterback. He enhanced his 10 sacks with eight quarterback hits and 36 hurries in 417 pass-rush snaps.
Umenyiora ranked No. 22 on that same list. In 409 pass-rush snaps, he had six sacks, seven quarterback hits and 32 hurries. In addition to his play at defensive end, the Falcons are working with Umenyiora as a stand-up linebacker in certain defensive sets, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Best-case scenario: Umenyiora equals Abraham’s productivity from last season in 2013. But what about the team getting any better at pulling down the quarterback?
Goodman and Maponga are still buried with the third-team defense on Atlanta’s depth chart, according to Atlanta Field Report. While Goodman has shown signs of success, Maponga hasn’t had glowing reports from training camp.
Both have been used with the second- and third-team defense as the Falcons progressed through camp.
#Falcons DE Stansly Maponga received some "coaching" from DL coach Sugar Bear Hamilton after a couple of battles with Sam Baker.— D. Orlando Ledbetter (@AJCFalcons) July 29, 2013
Even with the good and bad moments from camp for both pass-rushing rookies, it’s likely going to be some time before either plays in the regular season on a normal basis. On the opposite side of Umenyiora are both Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi. They’ll take the majority of the snaps in pass-rushing situations.
For Atlanta to improve its pass rush in 2013, the push is going to have to come from players who aren’t new to the roster, considering the switch from Abraham to Umenyiora is going to be a zero-sum game.
Who could help the Falcons, and how?
Biermann and the New-Look Defense
The Falcons are still going to run with a base 4-3 defense in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s second season with the team. But expect many more hybrid looks and for Nolan to set schemes in place to free Biermann up to rush the passer.
According to the Gwinnett Daily Post, Biermann has been taking most of his snaps (both in preseason action and training camp) at linebacker. The extra space he has to get up to speed as he rushes from the linebacker position may give him the edge he needs.
Hence, Biermann’s increased use at linebacker. It appears the team thinks his 6-foot-3, 255 pound frame is better suited to rush from the standing position with a little bit of open space between him and potential blockers prior to contact. Biermann said the change has altered some of the things he’s working on in training camp.
Daniel Cox from AtlantaFalcons.com believes Biermann, in addition to Umenyiora, gives this defense in his new role a lot of flexibility.
Osi and Biermann look like they offer Nolan a ton of flexibility. Starting 11-11 now and they're up and down #aftc13— Daniel Cox (@FalconsDCox) August 11, 2013
Massaquoi Stepping Up in the Preseason
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Massaquoi has been the Falcons best pass-rushing end through two preseason games. With a sack, a quarterback hit and three hurries in 25 pass-rush snaps, Massaquoi has been extremely effective at disrupting the quarterback.
Massaquoi has been using an improved technique and has shown that an extra year of experience could be exactly what’s needed for the second-year player out of Troy University to step up in this defense.
He’s even drawn praise from an ex-Falcon now in the media corps.
On a positive note I like what I'm seeing from Jonathan Massaquoi.— Alge Crumpler (@Alge_Crumpler) August 9, 2013
Massaquoi still isn’t ready to be a full-time end in this Atlanta defense. But he has shown thus far that when Biermann drops back to play linebacker and the team needs two defensive ends, he can hold down that spot opposite Umenyiora.
A Beefier Babineaux
Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux hasn’t made a dent in the pass rush for Atlanta through two preseason games, but he’s sure been in the backfield in the run game. With two tackles for loss against Baltimore, Babineaux is getting great push off the line.
Babineaux with fantastic penetration helps to stop that Ray Rice run before it really got started. #ATLvsBAL— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) August 15, 2013
Some of the reason why Babineaux seems stronger this season is because he is. While he didn’t so much add weight in the offseason, he said he “leaned up” dramatically and spent a lot of time in the weight room and with trainers to add speed and strength.
Remember Babineaux has been putting in work in offseason so he can play both DT and DE this year. That new quickness showed there #Falcons— Knox Bardeen (@knoxbardeen) August 16, 2013
The new speed and power will allow Babineaux to play both defensive tackle and defensive end. He’ll be able to push into the backfield in run situations as a tackle, and then hopefully get to the quarterback when Biermann is used at linebacker and either Umenyiora or Massaquoi needs a breather.
Did the Atlanta Falcons improve their pass rush in 2013?
Will the combination of Umenyiora, Biermann, Massaquoi and Babineaux with the depth of Goodman and Maponga help Atlanta increase its ability to rush the quarterback? Yes, it may be a little better in 2013 than it was last season. But don’t expect large-scale improvement.
Remember also that the Falcons will definitely start one rookie cornerback in the defensive backfield, possibly two this season in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.
If the front seven can’t drastically improve the pass rush—and the early thinking right now is the pass rush won’t be terrifically improved—any small gains in getting to the quarterback may be nullified by the two rookie corners as they transition to the NFL.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.