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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — John Abraham knows the success and failure of defensive ends is often judged by one statistic: sacks. And Abraham, the Falcons' top pass rusher off the edge, experienced a big drop-off in that category last season, notching just 5½ — the first time he had ever racked up less than 10 sacks when he played a full season, and 11 less than he registered in 2008.
But Abraham has looked at the film, and he is not discouraged.
"When your numbers start to plunge, you tend to watch yourself to see what's going on, see how you're doing," said Abraham, the Falcons' right end. "My moves were there, everything was good. And I was getting almost there, but the ball was coming out quick."
As a team, the Falcons racked up 28 sacks, tied for third-fewest in the NFC. Perhaps not surprisingly, the pass defense struggled, too, finishing 28th in the NFL. And no team was worse at mustering stops on third downs. In short, mustering more of a pass rush — both off the edge as well as inside, where Atlanta has some intriguing talent — might be just the ticket for overall defensive improvement for the Falcons, who are coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history and loom as the primary threat to the Saints in what could be a two-horse race in the NFC South.
Abraham, who has five double-digit sack seasons to his credit, is the most established of the Falcons' defensive linemen, and at 32, he doesn't believe he's slowing down. He holds that 2009 was "actually my best rushing year, but my worst production," citing the number of pressures he was able to generate as a positive.
While Abraham's pass rushing didn't result in as many sacks as in years past, the Falcons got a career-best season from DT Jonathan Babineaux, who led the team with six quarterback take-downs. Babineaux, whose sack total has improved in each of his five NFL seasons, quietly has become one of the league's better pass-rushing tackles.
The Falcons' interior line, by that same token, has the potential to be quite disruptive, especially if second-year DT Peria Jerry can stay healthy. Jerry, the Falcons' first-round pick in 2009, played just two games as a rookie before suffering a season-ending knee injury, and his health and conditioning are likely to limit him somewhat early in camp, though he did participate in individual drills during the team's opening training-camp practice. Jerry's durability looms as a concern — he also struggled to stay healthy at Ole Miss — but he notched seven sacks in his final season in college, a gigantic total for a defensive tackle.
Tackles who can get a push up the middle, as Abraham explained, can throw a passing game off-kilter.
"When you have an interior that can press the pocket, it helps me out," he said. "Just like I help them (for) the quarterback to step up, they help me to have quarterback step back and not give stuff up."
At left end, the big question is whether Jamaal Anderson, the club's top pick in 2007, will ever become more of a rush threat; after notching a combined 24 sacks in his final two seasons at Arkansas, he has recorded just 2½ sacks in three seasons in Atlanta. The Falcons used Anderson inside at tackle at times last season and will do so again this season. Kroy Biermann, Anderson's top backup, notched five sacks coming off the bench in 2009.
Any more heat generated by the Atlanta pass rush would be a boon to a secondary expected to be better because of the addition of former Texans CB Dunta Robinson. Robinson relishes the opportunity to play in Atlanta's zone schemes, believing it will give him opportunities to make more plays. And he likes the Falcons' willingness to be creative when it comes to dialing up pressure on opposing quarterbacks when needed.
"It's a very aggressive system, where we're going after the quarterbacks." Robinson said.
"You don't know where the blitzes are coming from."
And consistently rattling quarterbacks can do wonders for a team, as Abraham noted.
"You look at the Jets, they didn't lead the league in sacks, but they had a lot of pressures and they brought a lot of pressure on the quarterback, and it ended up changing their whole year on defense," he said.
This is a Falcons defense that has designs on becoming "elite," as third-year MLB Curtis Lofton, an emerging leader and playmaker, said Friday. And overall, it is a club perhaps on the cusp of achieving such status collectively.
The pressure's on. And it must be turned up, lest opposing passers get too comfortable.
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