Atlanta has been getting thinner at defensive end as the 2020 season rolls along, but that hasn't caused a dramatic decrease in the Falcons' ability to pressure the opposing quarterback. In fact, it's had quite the opposite effect.
How can that be; isn't the defensive line – and edge rushers in particular – responsible for the pressure generated on the quarterback? It's a bit more complicated than that, but, generally, teams like to apply pressure with only their guys on the line of scrimmage. Under interim head coach Raheem Morris, the Falcons have been increasingly effective at getting pressure in a variety of ways.
Dante Fowler and Takk McKinley entered the season as the Falcons' starting pass rushers at defensive end. Fowler has been dealing with injuries for much of the season and missed Atlanta's Week 9 matchup against the Denver Broncos. McKinley had an opposite story. He missed three of the team's final four games – suiting up against the Detroit Lions – and was released by the club during the bye week.
The normal assumption would be that without their top two edge rushers on the field together for virtually all of Morris's time in charge, the Falcons would blitz more frequently to compensate. That's actually proven out to be the wrong assumption. They've been blitzing a good deal less.
The two charts above tell a fascinating story.
Dan Quinn received criticism for the Falcons defense playing too conservatively at times to start the season. That would be understandable, given the leads Atlanta played with through its first five games, but the stats simply don't give credence to that notion. Or, at least when compared to the defense's play under Morris.
During the Falcons' 0-5 start, they did not bring more than four rushers on 68.1 percent of their opponents' dropbacks. They applied pressure 30 times in those 143 dropbacks, a pressure rate of 20.9 percent. Since Morris took over, the Falcons have opted not to bring an extra blitzer on 75.3 percent of opposing dropbacks. Of those 116 plays, the Falcons had a pressure rate of 31 percent.
That's a fairly substantial increase in pressure even when the Falcons are choosing to stick with just a four-man rush or even a three-man rush much more frequently.
When comparing those numbers with the first chart above, a bigger picture comes together.
In line with the decision to bring four men or less more frequently, the Falcons are blitzing at a much lower rate, but they have been more precise and effective.
Under Quinn, the Falcons sent at least five players on 31.9 percent of their opponents' dropbacks and earned a pressure rate of 25.3 percent – 17 total pressures on 67 snaps. Since then, the Falcons have only brought extra rushers on 38 dropbacks or 24.6 percent of their opponents' totals. They've gotten pressure on 13 of those plays, however, equating to a pressure rate of 34.2 percent, another notable increase.
There are some caveats to this improved play, starting with the quarterbacks the Falcons faced in those two defined time periods. In their first five games, the Falcons played Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers. They haven't faced someone of that caliber the last four games.
Despite some of the outside factors that could impact these numbers, it's also worth noting that they've been accomplished without McKinley or Fowler on the field together much. That all points to the Falcons getting creative, something fans may have noticed.
That creativity all comes down to who the Falcons are choosing to send. Atlanta has unlocked linebackers Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun as well as safety Keanu Neal as blitzers. It's not just that they are using them more, however, because as we showed above, that's not the case. It's how they are using them.
In their first five weeks, the Falcons often brought multiple defenders up to the line of scrimmage. With as many as seven players crowded around the offensive line, the Falcons attempted to confuse the offense after the snap by dropping some defenders into coverage and rushing with the rest. This was effective at times, but it also gives the offense a chance to think about the multiple scenarios that could play out.
The two pictures above show how the Falcons would bring more players to the line of scrimmage to give the threat of a blitz. It applies greater stress on the offensive line if five players do end up coming, but the line has a little bit of a heads up.
In recent weeks, Atlanta has been much more simplistic in its blitzes. They don't provide too much, if any, of a heads up that an added defender is coming, and they rely on their top athlete's getting a great jump. It's no surprise that Oluokun and Jones, two athletic linebackers, have proven to be great blitzers, but Neal's instincts in rushing the passer have notably improved.
Watch in the clips below how the Falcons utilize the inside gaps with their blitzers while relying on them to get in the backfield quicker than anyone can react.
In their previous four games under Morris, the Falcons recorded seven sacks – the same number they achieved in five games under Quinn. Those sacks have come about in different ways, though. Despite blitzing more with Quinn, the Falcons were less successful when bringing more than four guys.
Morris has figured out how to make the Falcons a much more efficient blitzing team, which has helped them earn wins with key defensive plays late in a game. If the Falcons continue to improve in this aspect of the game, it could help them greatly down the stretch.
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions with top photos from inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Week 7.