History suggests better pass rush in 2010

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Flowery Branch, Ga. --It's hardly a trade secret.

The Falcons entered 2010 intent on improving a pass rush that yielded only 28 sacks in 2010, ranking 26th in the league and a full half-dozen below the NFL median.

The media - local and national - predicted an April draft laden with defensive down linemen.

But the Falcons added only one defensive lineman in the draft: third-round defensive tackle Corey Peters (a stout, underrated tackle who has been rumored to have been extremely high on several teams' draft boards).

Some suggested the Falcons were complacent, but it's clear that Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff and Head Coach Mike Smith are fully in tune with the talent on the roster. They know the cupboards are anything but bare.

The Falcons are looking for defensive end Vic Beasley Jr. to return to his Pro Bowl form, as well as continued improvement from versatile end Kroy Biermann and the underrated but hyper-productive Jonathan Babineaux. The line should get a big boost with the return to the starting lineup up of 2009 first-round defensive tackle Peria Jerry, who missed the final 14 games of the season after suffering a week two knee injury.

According to the ProFootballFocus.com website, Abraham was second in the NFL in QB pressures with 39. The addition of cornerback Dunta Robinson could very well provide the three-time Pro Bowler the extra split second needed to bring down the quarterback. And playmaking linebacker Sean Weatherspoon was brought in to eventually get the majority of his work on the weak side, where his appetite for quarterbacks netted him 12 sacks and 3 forced fumbles during his Missouri Tigers' career.

Personnel moves are all things the Falcons can control. The schedule? Not so much. But it's tempting to at least dig into the numbers from last season to what may be in store in 2010.

A cursory conclusion after dissecting the offensive lines of the Falcons' 2010 opponents? There could be a great opportunity to improve on the 28 sacks the club notched last year.

In 2009 Atlanta's pass rush had its work cut out for it, facing four of the premiere pass protection teams in Miami, New England, New Orleans, and the Jets. In those games they managed a 2-3 record. On the flip side, against offensive lines that ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in sacks allowed (San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, Buffalo, and Philadelphia) the Falcons produced 16 sacks, more than half their season total, and a 4-2 record.

If history is a guide, they will face four more tough offensive lines in the upcoming season in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Baltimore, as well as two NFC South face-offs with New Orleans. But the three AFC North teams, while tough, are a notch below the elite level that Atlanta faced last season.

Reviewing a combination of sacks allowed last season and PFF's offensive line pass protection rankings, which combines sacks allowed, QB hits, QB pressures, and penalties, it appears the Falcons may have an easier road to travel in '10.

The Steelers, Atlanta's season-opening opponent, allowed the second-most sacks last season and recently lost their top lineman in right tackle Willie Colon. PFF ranks Pittsburgh's pass protection at a middle-of-the-pack 18th, but the loss of Colon could significantly hamper their ability to protect the quarterback under center.

Atlanta's second opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, were an impressive 26th last season in sacks allowed, but PFF ranks them as the worst pass protecting team in the league when the other statistics are taken into account. The loss of the quick thinking, veteran presence of Super Bowl champion quarterback Kurt Warner could add up to a big day for Abraham and Atlanta's pass rushers.

The 49ers, a team the Falcons gathered three sacks against last season, ranked 11th with 40 sacks allowed in 2009. The addition of two first-round rookies who should see significant playing time in G Mike Iupati and OT Anthony Davis could add up to growing pains in San Francisco.

The Buccaneers managed a respectable 20th ranking with 33 sacks allowed last season but a young quarterback in Josh Freeman combined with an offensive line that PFF ranks as the 28th-worst could pay dividends in the form of sacks.

St. Louis gave up 44 sacks last season, the eighth most in the league, and though PFF believes they aren't that bad (ranked 15th in pass protection) a potential rookie quarterback at the helm in Sam Bradford could continue Atlanta's feast on inexperienced quarterbacks next season.

Green Bay is one of the true anomalies on Atlanta's schedule, a team that allowed the most sacks in the NFL last season (51) but still made the playoffs. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers overcome all the take downs and the poor health of his line to continue his rise to one of the premier signal callers. Rodgers had success in spite of his poor protection and will only continue to do so until his offensive line improves its play.

The Seahawks led the league last season in pass attempts and thus allowed 41 sacks leading to a ranking of 10th. First-round tackle Russell Okung will be expected to step in and start, but Seattle's running game struggles could continue into 2010, which means the ball will be in the quarterback's hands more than they'd like as Abraham and Biermann bear down on him.

Though their rankings aren't poor from last season, the Eagles and Panthers have difficult situations at quarterback that could enable Atlanta to find their way to him.

Philadelphia ranked 12th with 38 sacks allowed, and PFF ranked them as the eighth-best pass protection fivesome in the league. But continued inconsistent play from left tackle Jason Peters and a first-year starter at QB in Kevin Kolb could mean the Eagles, long a franchise with strength on the o-line, will not meet expectations in 2010.

The Panthers are solid in pass protection (19 ranking with 33 sacks allowed and a PFF ranking of 20) and their run-blocking is frequently textbook. But whomever assumes the QB position - last year's surprise late-season starter Matt Moore, or 2010 second-round draft pick Jimmy Clausen - could put a lot of pressure on their line due to his relative inexperience.

On paper, facing seven potentially lower-level offensive lines in 2010 and two more lines protecting a quarterback situation in transition could spell positive things for the Falcons. But as former Sportscenter anchor Kenny Mayne used to say: "Games aren't played on paper...they're played by little men inside of television sets."

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