In a year of unbalanced teams, the Atlanta Falcons take the offense-defense polarization to another level.
Behind Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Devonta Freeman, the Falcons have been one of the most potent offenses in league history. Through 16 weeks, they’re first in offensive DVOA and scoring, with an NFL-best average of 33.5 points per game, which puts them on track to be the ninth highest-scoring squad since the merger, sandwiched right in between the 1999 and 2000 “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams teams. But then we run into the problem: They’re bad on defense. Very bad: 27th in defensive DVOA, and 25th in points surrendered per game (24.9). Only the Browns, Packers, and Jets have given up more passing touchdowns than Atlanta’s 29. If they could even just stop opposing offenses at a league-average rate, the Falcons would be the best team in the league.
However, there is one shining beacon of hope among Atlanta’s downtrodden defense. While the Falcons’ elite offense will carry them to a postseason berth, edge rusher Vic Beasley gives his team a chance to become more than just playoff roadkill over the next month and a half.
As we saw this past February, a single pass rusher can push a team to a championship. Von Miller was named the Super Bowl MVP after he recorded two and a half sacks and two forced fumbles. His strip sack of Cam Newton, which led to a Malik Jackson touchdown, added 14 percentage points of win probability by itself. Although no one is going to put Beasley onto Miller’s level quite yet, he uses a similar skill set off the edge — explosive speed, a devastating dip move, and a knack for separating the ball from the quarterback — and this season, he’s not only leading the NFL in sacks (14.5), but he’s forced a league-high six fumbles.
The eighth-overall pick in the 2015 draft, Beasley struggled to impress during a rookie year in which he registered just four sacks. But in 2016 he’s refined his technique, added a few more moves, and begun to play with the confidence that every top-tier pass rusher needs. His pass-rush repertoire isn’t extensive, so he leans on a few effective moves based on his speed off the edge. The first is the simple club-move shoulder dip. He gets to the outside, swats away the right tackle’s hands, and dips underneath the block to get to the passer. He did it twice against the Broncos in Week 5.
Then there’s his inside-out juke. This one’s simple: He just lines up super-wide, closes ground on the tackle, jukes like he’s going to shoot to the inside shoulder, then quickly bursts to the outside. He has enough power as a bull rusher that it forces tackles to respect the inside move and enough quickness to get around the outside once the lineman takes one false step. This move has led to two touchdowns this season: In Week 7 against the Chargers, Beasley’s strip sack was picked up by Adrian Clayborn and run in for a score, and in Week 14 against the Rams, Beasley knocked the ball out of Jared Goff’s hand and ran it in himself.
Beasley is also effective on stunts — a great counter to his outside speed — as he pairs up with a fellow defensive lineman to loop around on the inside. If you overprotect the edge, he’s going to make you pay on the interior. He recorded sacks on stunts against the Chargers and Rams too.
Even when he appears to be out of a play, Beasley consistently manages to reach through a horde of bodies to connect with the ball. He did it against Trevor Siemian and the Broncos …
… then again against Carson Wentz and the Eagles in Week 10.
On this play against the Rams, Beasley didn’t force a fumble, but he somehow reached around a block with his left hand to drag Jared Goff to the ground.
While about 90 percent of Beasley’s rushes come from the right, he’s still dangerous from other starting points. Against the Packers in Week 8, he sacked Aaron Rodgers after he spied the Green Bay quarterback — first making sure he wasn’t going to scramble before closing in and bringing him down.
What might be even more impressive than Beasley’s raw sack numbers is his efficiency. While edge rushers around the league are converting pressures into sacks about 15 percent of the time, the Falcons pass rusher has been turning his pressures into sacks almost 35 percent of the time, per Pro Football Focus. While head coach Dan Quinn’s philosophy is to “affect the quarterback” — in other words, it’s not always about sacks, it’s about moving him off his spot, getting pressure in his face, and disrupting timing — sacks are almost always better than hits or hurries, and Beasley has produced at an incredible rate.
Once the playoffs begin, Beasley is going to have a chance to feast. The NFC field is ripe with substandard right tackles: For the Giants, it’s Bobby Hart, who ranks 68th in pass protection among offensive tackles, per Pro Football Focus. Seahawks? Garry Gilliam, Bradley Sowell, or both. It won’t matter which one it is, because they’re both awful — Gilliam ranks 62nd in pass protection, with Sowell at 67th. For the Lions, it’s Riley Reiff, or the 42nd-ranked pass-protecting tackle. Even for the Cowboys, who boast the best offensive line in football, Doug Free is the weak link on the right side (ranked 37th). Tampa Bay right tackle Demar Dotson ranks 34th, and Washington’s Morgan Moses comes in 20th. In the conference, only the Packers, with Bryan Bulaga (ranked third) field a top-tier pass-protecting right tackle.
At this point, we know that the Falcons offense is going to put points on the board, and the defense is also going to give them up. The Falcons are going to have to win plenty of shootouts — but in a shootout, one or two big plays (turnovers from strip sacks, for instance) can be the difference between a win and a loss. For the team to make a postseason run, the Falcons don’t need Beasley to single-handedly fix the defense; they just need him to make the kind of plays he’s been making all year. After that, the offense can take care of the rest.