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Training camp preview: Grady Jarrett needs help creating havoc

Largely unproven unit needs to find solid form, quality rotation in Falcons camp

Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett #97 works during Atlanta Falcons minicamp on June 10, 2021.
Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett #97 works during Atlanta Falcons minicamp on June 10, 2021.

Lots of folks say the Falcons pass rush stunk last year, citing a pass defense ranked dead last in yards and a sack total that wasn't super high.

That too-common refrain, at its core, is an over exaggeration. Was it always great? Nope. Often not quite good enough? Yup. Is there plenty of room for improvement? Heck yeah.

But…a deeper look at the numbers shows it wasn't as terrible as you think. The Falcons created pressure on 23.6 percent pass-rushing snaps last year, per, with "pressure" constituting either a quarterback hurry, hit or a sack. That ranked 15th in the league. Not half bad. They knocked the passer down 61 times, with a percentage that ranked No. 13 overall. Their hurry percentage was ninth. The sack total (29), however, was 24th.

The Falcons were around the quarterback but didn't get him down enough before the ball got out. On that we can all agree.

Same with this: that sack total has to improve. While pressure can force bad decisions and errant throws, sacks or, if all goes well, strip sacks, are the big play defenses hunger to make.


There's a realistic expectation that more's on the way under new coordinator Dean Pees. Unpredictability and exotic pressure packages, after all, are part of his trademark. While he likes to bring pressure from everywhere, the defensive line will be charged with finishing regularly whether Pees calls a creative blitz or not.

The more you a line can get the job done with a four-man rush, the more you can allocate resources on the back end. That helps the entire unit.

Pees will play to the unit's strengths in run and pass defense.

Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is the unquestioned leader of both efforts. The two-time Pro Bowler is an excellent interior rusher who rarely leaves the field – he played 851 snaps in 2020 – and can create havoc by collapsing pockets. He's also an example of what the Falcons went through in 2020, with four sacks and 21 quarterback hits. That's a good sum, but he'd probably like to finish a bit more, as he did with 7.5 sacks in 2019. Jarrett's also a solid run defender who makes those around him better, and important role for a Falcons defensive line looking for better off the edge.

Dante Fowler and Steven Means return in those edge roles. The Falcons certainly hope Fowler can find the form that produced 11.5 sacks for the L.A. Rams in 2019. His 2020 was lackluster, especially when evaluated considering a big free-agent contract signed the previous offseason. If Fowler can crank things up, the Falcons pass rush will be far more imposing.

There's hope that 2020 second-round pick Marlon Davidson can take a big step forward after a rookie year marred by injury and a stint on the COVID-19 reserve list. He would pair well with Jarrett if playing to potential. It will be interesting to see how he performs in training camp and carves out a role for himself in 2021.

The competition for roles and roster spots will be high during this preseason, at times between veterans and young players. The position group is massive at this stage between tackles and edge players, so standing out from the pack this summer will be imperative for all but the relatively select few who have roster spots locked up.

There's also a possibility the front office could add to the crew as camp begins or wears on.

Training camp will be important to sort out roles and assignments for a group that remains a work in progress, making it worthwhile follow throughout the preseason Coaches must develop the talent on hand and help them finish more regularly to improve a pass defense essential to the Falcons remaining competitive in 2021.

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