FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — As the turnover happened within the Atlanta Falcons edge rusher room over the last six months, coach Ted Monachino’s position did what he has done for so much of his 16 years as a football coach.
He sat and watched football. So, so much football.
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He wasn’t, though, watching many of his own players from last year, but rather opponents and league-wide defenses. He wanted his new players to learn from some of the league’s best.
For Atlanta, the pass rush has to be better than last season, when the Falcons’ 18 sacks were 11 fewer than the next-worst team. Atlanta had a pass rush win rate of 34.2%, and the team’s 144 pass rush wins were ahead of only the Detroit Lions. Of Atlanta’s 18 sacks, only 8.5 came from edge rushers.
Monachino reminded his new players of this “five or six times a week,” even though most of them had nothing to do with what happened last season.
This offseason, the Falcons jettisoned almost their entire group of pass-rushers. Dante Fowler Jr. (4.5 sacks last year) and James Vaughters (one sack) were released. Atlanta cut Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, who is tied for second on the Falcons in sacks with two, in the middle of the season. Brandon Copeland and Steven Means were not re-signed.
Only Ade Ogundejii, a rookie last season with one sack, remains from last year’s rotation.
The Falcons also kept practice-squad players Quinton Bell and Jordan Brailford; signed Lorenzo Carter from the New York Giants in free agency; drafted Arnold Ebiketie in the second round and DeAngelo Malone in the third; and brought in Kuony Deng as an undrafted free agent.
What was an older edge rusher room — at an average age of 27 — became a young one with an average age just over 24 heading into camp. A group heavy on experience and light on production last season turned into one with little production but a lot of potential.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys with fresh legs,” Ogundeji said. “And that’s a big thing for us.”
It led to Monachino’s approach. He had his rushers watch all 17 players with double-digit sacks last season, along with the top six pass-rushing defenses in the league. It was his way of illustrating how to create as many one-on-one opportunities as possible, and then to teach his players how to win those matchups.
Monachino had the video downloaded on each player’s tablet so the player could watch whomever he wanted whenever he wanted.
Monachino specified rushers for some players based on body type and positioning. For Ogundeji, he wanted him to watch New Orleans Saints edge rusher — and Falcons quarterback nightmare — Cameron Jordan, “because he’s a big, physical rusher.”
He wanted Ebiketie to watch Pittsburgh Steelers edge rusher and last year’s NFL sack leader TJ Watt, because “that’s a similar body type.”
They’d often watch together in meetings, so Monachino could point out how his players “have a chance to do these different things” they see from players in the video.
It was an approach taken because of the lack of experience for players other than Ogunedji and Carter, who had a career-high five sacks last year and 14.5 total in his four years with the Giants.
“The fact that we have a lot of new guys doesn’t really mean much,” Carter said. “But the expectation is high for all of us.”
Besides the tape, Monachino also changed another approach. With Copeland, Means and Fowler last season, he rarely had to explain why the Falcons were approaching a play in a certain way. Veterans in the league, they already understood that from the thousands of snaps they had played.
“These guys, I spend a little bit more time on the why, how it all fits together, why they have to do it the way they have to do it so it fits together with what the secondary force pattern is and all that other stuff ,” Monachino said. “That’s the one difference.”
He has tried to create high-leverage situations more often for his young players to prepare them for what they might face in a game this season.
He also uses a green-dotted pointer — that’s the color they gave him — to highlight players during coaching sessions if a mistake has been made.
“Say this right here isn’t good enough,” Monachino said. “And make sure they understand what the expectation is.”
The expectation, in reality, is fairly simple. It’s creating havoc. It’s playing smart. And it’s producing much, much more than Atlanta’s edge rushers did a season ago.