Random thoughts on the defense and comments from the coordinator on a Thursday afternoon before an extended weekend…
Seven of the Falcons eight picks in the 2009 NFL Draft are defensive players.
Safe to say the team is looking for an infusion of talent and youth on that side of the ball. That, of course, comes with its own set of pros and cons.
But three weeks into organized team activities, defensive coordinator Brian VanGoder likes the upside shown by the speedy group taking shape on the field.
The Falcons are in the process of replacing five starters from a defense that — at the end of 2008 — sported an average age of 27.8
The 2009 Falcons could start multiple rookies on defense including, but not limited to, defensive tackle Peria Jerry, safety William Moore and cornerback Chris Owens. They’re competing with an equally youthful bunch including a second-year safety (Thomas DeCoud) and a third-year defensive tackle (Trey Lewis).
As of Thursday, just three players on the defensive roster are age 30 or older. Twenty-seven are age 26 or younger.
Curtis Lofton, who started at middle linebacker as a rookie, just turned 23.
“Curtis had an outstanding rookie season,” VanGorder said of Lofton, who finished fourth on the team with 108 tackles while playing primarily on first and second down. “Now he’s in his second year and much more comfortable with the system and communications. Therefore he can play a lot faster. He did not play in our sub package last year so that’s an area right now he’s really working on and trying to catch up a little bit… First year to second year we should see good, solid improvement from him.”
Lofton came off the field on passing downs last season. Defending the pass is an area of emphasis moving forward and something the team must do with quicker, but less experienced players.
The Falcons finished 21st in the league last season allowing 220 passing yards per game. The defense got younger in the secondary over the offseason but it will be up to various competitions to determine starters in 2009.
“I think we have to (see who rises to the top),” VanGorder said. “It will sort itself out in mini camp, OTAs and training camp… The competition will sort itself out and the guys that are deserving will earn it over that course of time. Competition is a healthy thing right now.”
The group can get help from the front seven in the form of pressure on the quarterback.
It’s not a perfect correlation, but it doesn’t take a multitude of numbers to realize more sacks — or hands in the quarterback’s face — creates a poor throwing environment.
John Abraham recorded 16.5 sacks in 2008. No other player had more than four (Chauncey Davis).
VanGorder likes what he’s seeing so far from second-year defensive end Kroy Biermann. He’s put on some extra muscle and, with Abraham taking some time to recoup from injuries, is getting extra reps.
The team also returns a starter in Jamaal Anderson and drafted three defensive linemen.
“I think we’ve got a guy like Kroy who is a year older and has some natural pass rush abilities,” VanGorder said. “Lawrence Sidbury, who we drafted out of Richmond, gives us another speed edge type of guy. Inside with Peria Jerry we drafted another sudden, explosive guy. So we should be much improved and we need to be much improved in regards to the pass rush. How that will all work itself out, we’ll see but it’s a good competition for us right now. The speed and experience factor are the biggest indicators right now that we’ll be better.”
Speed creates opportunity on defense which, in a perfect world, leads to more turnovers.
Here’s a look at the Falcons game-by-game turnover chart from 2008…
Atlanta finished 25th against the run (127.5 yards per game) last season.
The focus thus far has been on speed and explosiveness, but VanGorder also talked Wednesday about what the team can do to replace 345-pound defensive tackle Grady Jackson, who signed a free agent deal with Detroit.
As he puts it, three players are looking to fill the role.
All fit with the overall themes of youth and speed.
“Right now (Thomas Johnson) and Trey Lewis are battling it out,” he said. “Jason Jefferson is a much better looking player. There’s competition in there but I think the size of T.J. and Trey in regards to a Grady comparison gives us that space eater, but a little bit faster and run-to-the-ball kind of guy. We hope we’ll be better.”
Johnson, 305 pounds, has spent time with three different NFL teams. Jefferson started a game for Jackson in 2008. Lewis missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but says he’s rejuvinated and a better student of the game.
Johnson and Jefferson are 27. Lewis is 24.
More from VanGorder through the offseason in various features. Also look for a feature on Lofton on AtlantaFalcons.com next week.