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Keepin' it fresh: Why the Falcons 2023 defensive line rotation may mean just as much in the long-term as the short-term

Calais Campbell joked in training camp that the Falcons would be rotating their defensive line like they do hockey lines. That statement has rang true one week into the season.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- During training camp, Calais Campbell made a joke about the Falcons defensive line rotation. He said then that the Falcons' front rotation would look more like hockey lines than anything else. In the media scrum, everyone laughed, including Campbell, who chuckled. The jokes on everyone else, though, because Campbell was telling the truth.

The Falcons defensive line doesn't sub in one here and two there. When they sub in and out, more often than not, they're sending in four bodies in replacement.

In Week 1, the groupings were as followed:

Campbell, Grady Jarrett, David Onyemata and Bud Dupree made up the first group. Lorenzo Carter, Albert Huggins, Ta'Quon Graham and Zach Harrison made up the second group. When the Falcons weren't leaning on their nickel package on the backend, Arnold Ebiketie offered support at the line of scrimmage with both groups. On average, the split between the first-team and second-team participation was 60% to 30%. In an ideal world, defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen said that split is closer to 50/50.

"Sometimes it doesn't get like that. Sometimes it'll go like it did last game, and sometimes it can go the other way," Nielsen said. "It's kind of just about how the game is going and how we see the rotation going in the week we plan."


Because there are so many new faces on this defensive line, the best way we see this impact is through the usage of Jarrett. He's someone who - in almost a decade in the league - has worked with a handful of defensive play callers who all had their own philosophy in regards to rotation. In the last four years, Jarrett has played in 76.4% of the defensive snaps on average. On Sunday, his percentage was at 65.3%. The last time Jarrett had a snap count average under 70% was in 2018, and the average is lower because Jarrett was inactive in two games that year.

The reason for this change in percentage is two-fold.

For starters, this is a practice Nielsen has had for years, well before he ever came to Atlanta. A quick scan of snap count percentages of the Saints defensive line in the last five years shows that. Over the course of the last five seasons, the top defensive tackle contributor in New Orleans averaged 55.1% of the total defensive snap counts, according to Next Gen Stats. Onyemata was the Saints most-played defensive tackle in three of the last five years, and only last year did his snap-count average surpass the 60% mark (at 60.3%). So, this rotation is nothing new for Onyemata.

"You know you have a couple reps to give it your all and then you can come out and catch a breather and then go back out there and be ready to execute at a high level, not being tired or none of that," Onyemata said. "… You feel fresher."

And therein lies the crux of the benefit of this type of rotation along the defensive front, the second reason for the change.

"It kept guys fresh," Jarrett said thinking back to the Falcons Week 1 win vs. Carolina. "It kept everybody rolling, and everybody got the opportunity to go out there and show what they can do. I think it'll be very good for us going forward." 

Between Jarrett, Onyemata, Campbell and Dupree, they've been staples in the league for - on average between the four - a decade. With experience comes knowledge, but we all know the bones creak a bit more as the years increase. That's not to diminish what any of these men can do on the field, it's just a fact. They all have joked at one point or another about the work they have to do to keep their body right in their 30s in comparison to when they were 21-year-olds. So, the fresher they can stay both in the long-term of a full season and the short-term from series to series, the better.

That, and perhaps this rotation even helps defenders mentally, too. According to Onyemata, if you know you're only going to get so many chances to make an impact in a game, the harder you go when you're number is called.

"The big thing is taking on your responsibility," Onyemata said, "because when you go in there you're expected to play at a high level." 

For someone like Jarrett, he has no complaints about the changes in rotation and how he's being used in this defense. If anything, he, too, feels fresher.

"It's definitely organized, and when you have a new group of guys, a new coach and a new way that we're doing rotations, you don't know how it's going to go, (but it was) smooth," Jarrett said of how Week 1's showing went. "I have zero complaints and I'm excited about how it's going to continue to work out for us during the season."

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put on their red helmets and put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the Green Bay Packers, presented by Fast Twitch.

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