Looking back four years to the 2015 NFL Draft, it's difficult to disagree with the notion that the Falcons walked away with the biggest steal of the weekend. In the fifth round, with the 137th overall pick, Atlanta pulled the name of an undersized defensive tackle from just up I-85 at Clemson. Grady Jarrett, a 6-foot-1, 304-pound disruptive and penetrating interior lineman from Rockdale County.
His blend of speed and power paired with the ability to keep his pad level low and maintain leverage makes Jarrett difficult to deal with. Those attributes were on full display in Atlanta's Week 13 matchup with Baltimore. The Clemson product logged six tackles (four solo) with one sack and a pair of forced fumbles. On the season, Jarrett has registered 37 tackles (19 solo) with four sacks, 10 quarterback hits, four tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles despite missing two games with an injury.
Jarrett was on the field for 73 percent of Atlanta's defensive plays on Sunday. Including eight snaps on special teams, Jarrett covered a total of 759 yards and averaged 11.9 yards per play. He reached a maximum speed of 17.02 mph, the second-highest speed he has hit this season.
OK, full-tilt sprint speed may not be the most important thing for a defensive tackle. But when lining up against an offense that utilizes a variety of option plays Jarrett's quickness off the ball and ability to get into the backfield rapidly stresses the quarterback's ability to make good decisions. The most vulnerable point of any option play, whether it's read-option, RPO, or good old-fashioned triple option is the mesh point. This is the point in the play when the quarterback decides whether to hand the ball off or to pull it out and keep it for himself.
If a defense can disrupt the mesh point (see image above), it not only stresses the quarterback but also provides an opportunity to make a play on the ball. Jarrett provided a textbook example of this in the first quarter of Sunday's game.
With the Ravens holding the ball at the Falcons 13 yard-line, Baltimore lined up in the pistol formation with quarterback Lamar Jackson in the shotgun and running back Gus Edwards behind him. The Falcons countered with eight men in the box, four linemen, three linebackers and safety Jordan Richards. At the snap, Jarrett beat Marshal Yanda off the ball and knifed his way into the backfield.
The Conyers, Ga., native quickly closed the 5 yards between the line of scrimmage and Jackson, meeting the quarterback and running back at the mesh point. Jackson attempted to pull the ball away from Edwards, but Jarrett arrived too quickly and his hit on Edwards knocked the ball loose. Unfortunately for Atlanta, with Jarrett dragging Edwards to the ground, Yanda was able to fall on the ball as he tried to recover from being beaten to the inside.
"Jarrett, I love it. He just goes right at them and says, 'I don't care who's keeping it, I'm going to hit you both right now,'" said CBS Sports commenter Tony Romo.
If it weren't for Jarrett's quickness and decisive decision to attack the mesh point, Jackson may have been able to get the ball out from Edwards and make a play in space. By disrupting the mesh point, he put a great deal of stress on Jackson and Edwards allowing his teammates to flow to the ball resulting in a 5-yard loss.
Although the Falcons were unable to take advantage of the first fumble Jarrett caused on Sunday afternoon, the defense would not let the opportunity pass by on the next one. The Ravens successfully converted a fake punt early in the second quarter with Sam Koch tossing a 21-yard pass that traveled 25.9 yards in the air – the longest air-distance throw of the game for Baltimore – setting them up with the ball on the Falcons 25 and a chance to break the game open.
Jarrett had other ideas though. Two plays later, Jackson dropped back to pass but Takk McKinley, Vic Beasley Jr., and Jack Crawford collapsed the pocket. The Ravens signal-caller tried to escape to his left but was once again met by Jarrett. The fourth-year pro was once again able to knock the ball loose, but this time Atlanta recovered it.
Beasley, Jarrett's former Clemson teammate and fellow 2015 draftee, scooped up the loose ball and returned it 74 yards for a touchdown. It was Atlanta's first non-offensive touchdown of the season and the second-longest fumble recovery touchdown in the NFL this season.
"I was just trying to get to the quarterback," Jarrett said. "I had a good opportunity to go for the ball and get the sack at the same time. The ball came out and Vic [Beasley] came in and picked it up and took it for the touchdown. It was one of my favorite plays of my career. Me and Vic have been playing for a long time and to force that and do that together it was pretty cool."
Jarrett was credited with a strip-sack for a loss of 5 yards, one of his three tackles behind the line of scrimmage on Sunday. He sacked Jackson in 3.47 seconds.
After Jarrett punched the ball out, Beasley picked it up at the Falcons 26-yard line and raced to the end zone for the score. He reached a top speed of 17.88 mph – making him the second fastest Falcon ball carrier on the day. The 2015 first-round pick covered 112.51 total yards on the play. He was joined by two other Falcons, Jordan Richards, and Damontae Kazee, covering more than 100 yards on the play as they set up blocks to spring the touchdown run.
Beasley's score was the Falcons first fumble return for a touchdown since he scored on a similar play against the Rams in Los Angeles late in the 2016 season. For the game, Beasley covered 662.3 total yards, averaging 14.1 per play.
Team speed is crucial to a defenses ability to force fumbles. Players that can cover a lot of ground quickly are generally going to be the ones in a position to attack the ball either before a ball carrier has a chance to secure it or track them down once they think they are in the clear. It comes as no surprise that Beasley tied a franchise record with six forced fumbles in 2016 while Keanu Neal was nipping at his heels with five. Since 2015, the Falcons have forced 46 total fumbles.