Vic Beasley, Jr.'s rookie season was filled with ups and downs, and given the 23-year-old's lofty expectations, he'd be the first to admit 2015 didn't go as planned.
Fair or not, the public is judging Beasley on how many times he can sack opposing QBs, and his total (four) wasn't viewed as enough. Not for a first-round pick, a former All-American, a premier ACC talent expected to become a long-term fixture in Atlanta.
Beasley's circumstances are unique in many respects, but we saw a comparable situation unfold around the turn of the century, back when the Falcons drafted Patrick Kerney: another exciting pass-rusher who struggled at the beginning of his pro career.
After earning just 2.5 sacks in 16 games during the 2000 season, Kerney—another All-American, ACC star and first-round selection—knew the jury was nearing its verdict, even though he had yet to celebrate his 25th birthday. The University of Virginia alum had loads of potential, but he (and everyone else) knew he needed to post stats sooner than later.
Indeed, there's a clear resemblence between Kerney and Beasley's narratives. And if the latter has his way, that will continue well into the future.
In 2001, Kerney made some important changes and tallied a whopping 12 sacks—helping propel Atlanta to its first playoff appearance since its run to Super Bowl XXXIII. He went on to enjoy a highly successful career, one that included two Pro Bowl nods, a pair of first team All-Pro nominations and the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year award.
Now, the question is, How can Beasley follow a similar path?
To help form an answer, Kerney studied Beasley's tape and joined AtlantaFalcons.com for an in-depth interview, which can be found below.
Andrew Hirsh: Thanks for taking the time to chat. First off, I'd like to get your general impression of Beasley's performance as a rookie.
Patrick Kerney: He's raw, like most young guys who are there to rush the passer. At the college level, you see the highlights, and clearly he has the skills to make plays against guys who weren't on his level athletically. There's an adjustment when you move up a level—whether it's high school to college or college to the pros—and he dealt with that. I saw him grow across the season in understanding things that helped him make more plays.
I think the general population will look at his four sacks and be disappointed, but if someone watches the film, you see a lot more potential and production than four sacks would indicate. His speed threatens guys, but like a lot of young guys who come in who run well, they become so dependant on it. They feel like they can just run around the tackle. And the fact of the matter is, unless you're totally guessing on the snap count, no one's fast enough to just run around a tackle. Dwight Freeney at his peak—he ran a 4.3 40—he wasn't fast enough to do this.
AH: I noticed that, too, and also think he got more creative as the season went on. If I had to guess, I'd say the work Dan Quinn puts in with his pass-rushers is a big reason why.
PK: When Dan Quinn and I were in Seattle, we always talked about having to do something to address the tackle's hands. He's going to punch you, and if all you do is try to run around him, he's going to push you by. Early in the season, you saw Vic just trying to run around guys, and it was fun to see his evolution, where, even if he wasn't swiping the hands or chopping the hands, he'd do a quick dip when he knew that punch was coming. He learned his speed alone wasn't enough. It was fun to see.
AH:** In addition to his hand technique, in what ways do you think he improved from Week 1 to Week 17?
PK: One thing I picked up in the middle to later part of the year: he switched his stance a few times. From an offensive tackle's point of view, if someone is in the same stance using the same moves, everything is going to time up the exact same. All of the sudden you switch your footing, now that tackle is like a hitter in the batter's box, and the timing of the pitch is all of the sudden different. Against New Orleans (in Week 17) Vic switched to an inside stance and put a beautiful up-and-under rush against Streif and got a great hit on Drew Brees. I can only assume that, with his athleticism, switching up the timing was the difference.
(I also noticed) he can be a great power rusher because his speed can get the OT off balance. Particularly in the second Carolina game, he waited an extra step and forced the tackle to come off his stance, at which point he was able to turn on the guy and put him off balance.
AH: In what ways do you think the Falcons can help him get better?
PK: That sack total can be helped a lot with scheme. In my time there, Bill Johnson was our defensive line coach. We made sure to rush as a unit and understood what makes a quarterback comfortable and what doesn't. We had the two outside rushers, a guy at 3-technique and what we called the "power pusher." He's not going to get sacks; he's selfless; and he's going to fight to get a double team pushed back three yards into the backfield. If he does that and doesn't get any sacks, he's worth his weight in gold.
AH: Like an Ed Jasper-type player? (Jasper played in Atlanta from 1999 to 2004).
KS: That's exactly what I'm talking about. Ed bit, scratched and clawed to get that double team set back three yards. Coach Johnson instilled the "rush as a group" philosophy. It made all the difference for all of us, I think. It certainly helped me understand my role, which is to make the quarterback uneasy.
AH: It's interesting that you say your role was to make the QB uneasy. Did understanding this require a shift in mentality?
PK: It did. You have to stop thinking about sacks and start thinking about affecting the passer. Our job is pass-rushers, not quarterback-sackers. When all of the sudden your goal is to affect the quarterback, you start to view things differently. If you get run by, you realize, "I'm not affecting the quarterback," versus, if I bull rush and get stalled, that quarterback is now worried about stepping on his lineman's feet. I'm now affecting the quarterback.
AH: Do you think this could be useful advice for Beasley?
PK: Psychologically, it'd helped a great deal to understand his job is to affect the quarterback every time he's rushing.
AH:** I'm really curious to hear what you have to say about Beasley's strength. You two have a lot in common as far as storylines go, but you were a much bigger athlete than he is. One of the few concerns about him coming out of Clemson was size. Do you think bulking up is something he should worry about?
PK: The only reason it could be useful for him to add size is to give the coaches comfort to have him in on more snaps. I feel like a lot of 1st and 10s, 2nd and 4s, he wasn't in the game last year. You're losing a lot of at-bats. The times he didn't get the job done, it had nothing to do with his size and strength. It had to do with his eyes and where he was attacking.
AH: Being in Quinn's system probably makes it easier for those smaller pass-rushers to succeed.
PK: Yep. When I was playing in Seattle and we played that (4-3) under front, we had Chris Clemons at end. He was only 250 (pounds) and put up great numbers. Given what Vic's asked to do, he's better off adjusting his psychology as a pass-rusher and continuing to work on technique. Understanding protections, knowing when the inside move is going to be there. Or when it's not. Learning things like that will have much more benefit than putting on 10 pounds.
AH: Based on your experience with Quinn (the two were both with the Seahawks in 2009), how do you think he can help Beasley's development?
PK: Dan is highly detail-oriented with defensive line play. Dan has a complete grasp of the intricacies, the details that will separate a pass-rusher. He knows the ways to address the hands; the ways to address certain steps by offensive linemen. He loves it. So if you're a player who is passionate about being great, you're with a coach who has that equal passion, who has invested a great deal of his life into helping others maximize that passion.
AH: Given what you've seen and know about his position, do you think Beasley has what it takes to be an elite pass-rusher?
PK: I do. The physical skills are there. The effort's there. ... Those flashes of top level technique showed as the season progressed. So he's trending in the right direction.