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Why Falcons defensive lineman David Onyemata 'starting to be the best he can be'

The veteran interior presence recorded a sack, a forced fumble and 10 tackles in the Falcons' Week 9 contest against the Vikings. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Throughout his long tenure in the NFL, Calais Campbell has watched a lot of game film. Sometimes, he said, certain guys pop off the screen. Fellow defensive lineman David Onyemata always did that to Campbell.

So, when the two became Atlanta Falcons teammates this past offseason, Campbell was already an Onyemata fan.

"It's his consistency that makes him the most impressive," Campbell said. "You don't see a play that he doesn't ball. Maybe one every 100 plays." 

In the Falcons' Week 9 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, Onyemata received 51 snaps on defense – the most out of any lineman – and truly capitalized on his time. Onyemata forced a fumble that lead to an Atlanta field goal, recorded a sack for a loss of 3 yards and took down a career-high 10 tackles overall.

"That's hard to get double-digit tackles as a defensive lineman," Campbell said. "But that's just the way he's flying around, playing whistle to whistle. He's playing with physicality. Then, getting the sack and the forced fumble, oh yeah, it's impressive. That's not just a turnover that led to points; it gave us a chance to win the ball game. It sucks we didn't win because I thought he might have a chance to win defensive player of the week. But he's playing really good ball right now."

Onyemata is in his eighth season, his first with the Falcons. He has recorded a sole forced fumble, three pass breakups, 3½ sacks and 39 tackles. He has also had five tackles for a loss and 12 quarterback hits, proving he makes his way into the opponent's backfield.

Prior to signing with the Falcons in the offseason, Onyemata was with the New Orleans Saints. Of course, so was Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen. They've shared a path since 2017, so Nielsen has had a front-row seat to Onyemata's development for all but his rookie year.

"The guy is an extremely hard worker," Nielsen said. "From the first time that he started in the league, he's taken that approach every single day. … He's a tireless worker on the fundamentals, the technique and the detail of the position. He loves that part of the game."

That doesn't go unrecognized, even by coaches who have only known him for a few months now.

"He pushes the pocket, he takes care of the guard and the center sometimes, and he lets the linebacker scrape over to make a tackle. It's a glorified tackle for the linebacker, but they don't see that he took a double team on," Falcons assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray said. "Then, when it's a pass game, he has to go and rush the passer. He may have put a hand up and the quarterback didn't see him, and all of a sudden, the ball is awry.

"Those are some little things that you don't see on film or on paper, but we see them."

What shows up on paper for the 6-foot-3, 300-pounder is this:

Career highs: Seasons

  • Interceptions: 1 (2020)
  • Fumble recoveries: 1 (2021 and 2022)
  • Forced fumbles: 1 (2018 and 2023)
  • Pass breakups: 3 (2023)
  • Sacks: 6½ (2020)
  • Tackles: 44 (2020)

Career highs: Games

  • Interceptions: 1 (2020 Week 9)
  • Fumble recoveries: 1 (2021 Week 8 and 2022 Week 5)
  • Forced fumbles: 1 (2018 Week 18 and 2023 Week 9)
  • Pass breakups: 2 (2023 Week 2)
  • Sacks: 3 (2019 Week 13)
  • Tackles: 10 (2023 Week 9)

But stats, while still important, don't tell the full story here.

"If a guy appreciates line play, I think David's up there with the best of them in terms of what he does down-in and down-out," Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said. "The strength he has at the point of attack, the way he affects a game, he's unique. I appreciate David and the things he does. The guy loves to play, and he's an absolute warrior."

That emotion is something Campbell noted about Onyemata before they shared a locker room. If anything, it's even more evident now. And it's bound to continue to grow. Campbell, who recorded career sack No. 100 this season, would know.

Greatness recognized greatness.

"It's got to a point where he's starting to be the best he can be," Campbell said. "Sometimes, just guys who really love the game – the way he does, the way I do – you get better the more you do it. I expect him to just get better and better."

Take an overhead look back at the game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Minnesota Vikings during Week 9.

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