FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — When a quarterback drops back to pass against the Atlanta Falcons, there’s no need to worry about getting sacked.
Or even taking a hit.
The Falcons are the only team in the NFL without a sack after the first two weeks of the season. In fact, they’ve only been credited with one hit on the quarterback — and that came as they surrendered a 76-yard touchdown pass to the Cincinnati Bengals this past Sunday.
On Monday, the Falcons (1-1) went through an evening walkthrough at their suburban training facility, staying on the field nearly a half-hour after sundown as they prepared to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-2) on a short week.
“It was getting a little dark out there,” receiver Devin Hester said with a smile. “And the mosquitoes started biting.”
If only the pass rushers showed a little bite.
The Falcons are paying a heavy price for their failure to bring in someone who can provide consistent pressure off the edge, whether through the draft or in free agency. They haven’t ranked in the top half of the league in sacks since 2008 — Mike Smith’s first season as coach — and there’s no sign of anything changing this year.
At times, Smith has gotten defensive about the paltry sack numbers, saying it’s just as important to force the quarterback into hurried throws. But even he can’t defend what he’s seen through two weeks.
“We’ve got to put more pressure on the quarterback,” he said. “It’s not where we want to be at after the first two games. I think that’s translated into us not playing the type of defense that we want. We haven’t been able to pressure the quarterback, nor have we been able to stop the run. That’s two issues that we definitely have to address and get better at.”
Really, the Falcons have no one to blame but themselves.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff, who came to Atlanta the same year as Smith, has not picked a defensive end higher than the fourth round. The only one to make any sort of contribution is Kroy Biermann, an undersized end who has never had more than five sacks in a season.
The only player to post double-digit sacks during the Dimitroff-Smith era is John Abraham, whose signing by the Falcons preceded the current regime.
Abraham was let go in a salary-cutting move before last season, but that was clearly a mistake. He had 11.5 sacks for the Arizona Cardinals, four more than Falcons leader Osi Umenyiora.
This year, more of the same.
Or, should we say, even less.
“The ball’s coming out quick,” defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said. “We’ve just go to continue to plug away, continue to work together as a unit.”
Atlanta hoped to improve its pass rush by signing bulky defensive tackles Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, figuring that would tighten up the run defense, force opponents into more passing situations, and make the quarterback a more inviting target.
But the Bengals rushed for 170 yards in their dominating 24-10 victory — it wasn’t really that close — and the Falcons have surrendered an average of 154.5 yards through two games, a dismal 26th in the early league rankings.
This looks like a good week to turn things around.
On Thursday night, the Falcons will face a Buccaneers team that ranks near the bottom of the league in total yards and scoring average after losing its first two games. If the guys up front can do a better job pressuring Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown, Atlanta’s promising secondary should get more of a chance to shine.
If not, it’s going to be a long season.
“We help the D-line. The D-line helps us,” cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “If we cover better, maybe they can get to the quarterback better.”
NOTES: Good news for the Falcons on the injury front: left tackle Jake Matthews is expected to play against the Buccaneers. Matthews was listed as limited following the walkthrough, but Smith expects him to fully participate in Tuesday’s practice. “It’s the first time in my life I’ve had to sit out a game with an injury,” Matthews said. ... Gabe Carimi, who started in Matthews’ spot, could remain in the lineup even if the rookie returns. Right tackle Lamar Holmes struggled against the Bengals, making it possible that Carimi will shift sides.
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