Dwight Freeney is still one of NFL's best disruptors, but pass rush a concern for Atlanta
Dwight Freeney is 36 years old and the best pass-rusher the Atlanta Falcons have. While that second point is something of a concern for Atlanta this season (more on that later), the truth is that Freeney would still be the best pass-rusher on multiple teams in the NFL, and against weaker tackles in particular he can still be devastating.
His performance in Atlanta’s “Monday Night Football” win over New Orleans was good enough to earn an 83.0 grade, sixth-highest among edge defenders this week league-wide, and the second-best mark among the Falcons’ entire team.
He did the majority of his damage lined up against New Orleans offensive tackle Andrus Peat, last year’s first-round pick who was filling in at left tackle for an injured Terron Armstead. Peat surrendered a sack and five hurries in the game, and all but one hurry came from Freeney, who also beat Peat cleanly on a couple of other plays but the ball came out before it could become pressure.
Freeney would essentially alternate between an outside rush that he often converted to a bull rush once he got Peat off-balance, and then his trademark inside spin move to leave Peat completely lost at sea over the course of the game.
Take this play as an example of how unable Peat was to contain Freeney’s rush. The play before he had attacked to the outside, trying to drive through Peat’s block as he turned the corner. On that play he just about managed to keep him off the QB as pressure came from Vic Beasley from the other side on a stunt, but watch how he overcompensates for it on the very next snap:
Freeney sends Peat crashing to the floor with the inside spin, and had a free run at Saints QB Drew Brees if he had a fraction longer to get home.
We have seen it everywhere Freeney goes – that spin move still has juice in today’s NFL, and it will continue to provide a valuable source of pass rush for the Falcons this season.
What is concerning for them is that right now it appears to be their primary source of pass rush. While Freeney’s pass-rush grade against the Saints was 84.1, the other Falcons rusher were not nearly as impressive. Vic Beasley was the closest with a 57.3 grade, but Adrian Clayborn (45.4) and Brooks Reed (44.4) were even further back.
It’s definitely true that Freeney was beating up on the weak link in the New Orleans offensive line, but Clayborn spent most of his snaps out over the tackle as well, with just 20 of 57 coming further inside, and yet he generated just a single pressure against Peat. Beasley and Reed were on the other side of the formation working against a far better player in Zach Strief, but that in itself shows part of the problem Atlanta has; their blindside pass rush consists of a combination of Clayborn and Freeney working against left tackles.
Through three games Freeney is tied for the team lead with nine total pressures despite being essentially a situational rusher. He has played 87 total snaps, of which 73 have been rushing the passer, and while he has clearly got something left in the tank, it is far from an ideal situation for the team to be in that they don’t feel they can have him out there as an every down player but need him any time they want to get after the passer.
The ideal scenario for both Freeney and the Falcons is that the team would have a quality starter on the right side of that defensive line, and have Freeney to come off the bench in pass-rush situations, to maximize his effectiveness and efficiency in limited doses. Right now they don’t have that quality in front of him, and so he is being brought on as much as they can, because without him they are relatively toothless up front.
The team is now 2-1, atop the NFC South and scoring points for fun on offense, but this team needs to find a secondary source of pass rush beyond what a 36-year old Dwight Freeney can give them. Not every team will have an Andrus Peat for him to victimize, and without that source of pressure, playing defense becomes a lot harder.