FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga.
It's one thing to acknowledge the need to improve a certain area of a defensive unit. It's yet a completely different notion to spawn that change.
The Falcons found that out the hard way last season. Atlanta finished tied for 29th in the league in sacks in 2013, but didn't find a way to bolster its pass rush during the offseason preceding the 2014 campaign. As a result, the Falcons finished next to last with just 22 sacks, and no one on the roster had more than Kroy Biermann's 4.5.
In an NFL where it's ever-important to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the Falcons spent a ton of resources over the last few months to improve a beleaguered front seven.
Dan Quinn was brought in as head coach to create a Sun Tzu-like atmosphere of motivation and strategic planning for the war in the trenches. The Falcons also used their top 2015 draft pick on one of the best collegiate pass-rushers in the nation, Clemson's Vic Beasley.
Add in free agents along the front like Adrian Clayborn and a plethora of new blood in the linebacker corps (O'Brien Schofield, Justin Durant and Brooks Reed), and the retooling efforts appear huge.
While improvement can be expected, a quick change in personnel can only take the Falcons so far when it comes to their pass-rush needs.
That's why the coaching staff challenged its band of attack-the-passer personnel to come to camp in the best shape they've ever been, and to be ready to focus on speed, movement and athleticism.
"I think we're going to look to utilize the talent that we have," said defensive line coach Bryan Cox. "We have a good combination of size and a good combination of speed. It's going to be a situation where we can dance the dance. If you're into hip hop, we can go to the hip-hop class and dance. If you want to waltz, we can do that too.
"Ultimately Q's [head coach Dan Quinn] vision of what we're trying to get to we want athletic guys that can run. We've got big, strong guys that are becoming more athletic. We're just trying to get guys where we can send a wave of people.
That wave the Falcons send in the pass rush might start with Beasley, but unlike recent years, he won't be the only relevant attacker up front.
Second-year lineman Ra'shede Hageman dropped nine pounds during the offseason and sculpted many more. No player came to the offseason workout program after more of a physical metamorphosis than did Hageman, who no longer looks or needs to take 'catch-my-breath' breaks in between drills and more often than not explodes through sessions with impressive ease.
"You see that he's grown," Cox said about Hageman on Monday. "He turned 25 two days ago and he came in and we had a little conversation. He said 'I feel like I'm a man now.' He’s doing things the way that he should do them. ... He has the work ethic that he didn’t have last year. He’s grown in his first year. I’m excited to see what he can become."
Hageman and defensive end Tyson Jackson spent time in California with Jay Glazer training MMA style. Not only did the workouts help to trim the two warriors, but the hand-to-hand skills both took on will benefit the duo as they fight off blocks. Cox expects some of the MMA movements like escaping wrist grabs, pushing an offensive lineman's hands off the pass-rushers' chest and keeping opponent's hands out of their faces will truly benefit Hageman and Jackson.
Clayborn came to Flowery Branch more than ready to work. Quinn has repeatedly called him one of the best competitors in camp, and Cox likes what he's seen out of the former first-round pick.
Jonathan Babineaux and rookie, fifth-round pick Grady Jarrett have also caught Cox's eye in terms of rushing the passer. Babineaux has always been a disruptive force in the middle of the line, and Jarrett's always-on motor -- as well as his ability to move sideline to sideline like a refrigerator on wheels -- have been on display.
"I call him 'Truck driver,' all my rookies got nicknames," said Cox when asked about Jarrett. "He looks like a truck driver and he has the work ethic of a truck driver. When you talk about him, just his quickness and his speed."
Quinn came to Atlanta with reputation for finding great fits for players and developing ways to showcase their talents in his scheme. Players all along the Falcons' defense have harmoniously flocked toward Quinn's teachings, and gone above and beyond to make themselves moldable to his keen eye.
Atlanta's roster has improved, as has its mentality and coaching along the defensive front. The next step for these Falcons is to show their enhanced skills on the field.
Falcons' pass rush seeing improvements
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