Atlanta coach Mike Smith has talked several times about how he wants to use a seven- or eight-man rotation on his defensive line. He also has said repeatedly he wants to make sure none of his defensive linemen are on the field for more than 35 or 40 plays a game.
Sounds nice in theory, but the Falcons are going to have to make some changes and get bigger contributions from several new guys and players who were injured last year to really make this plan work.
I just gathered up the numbers on how much playing time each of Atlanta’s defensive linemen played last season and several things jumped out.
The biggest thing was that defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux averaged 53 plays a game last year. Of Atlanta’s 1,034 defensive snaps, Babineaux was on the field for 846 (81.8 percent of the defensive plays). That’s a huge amount for a defensive tackle.
To put it in perspective, Babineaux ranked behind only Minnesota’s Kevin Williams, who was on the field for 86.1 percent of his team’s defensive plays, among all the defensive tackles in the league. There were only a handful of defensive tackles across the league that even reached the 60 or 70 percent range.
It’s great that Babineaux was able to hold up physically through all that, but the Falcons wound up playing him a lot more than they wanted to. A large reason for that was because they lost rookie defensive tackle Peria Jerry to injury very early in the season. That took away the depth behind Babineaux because guys like Thomas Johnson (41 percent of the plays), Vance Walker (23.5 percent) and Trey Lewis (19.7) had to pick up snaps in Jerry’s spot. The Falcons also rotated defensive end Jamaal Anderson to defensive tackle at times. I don’t have a breakdown on how many snaps Anderson got at each position, but he was on the field for 550 snaps (53.2 percent).
You can bet that Babineaux’s not going to be on the field as much this season. First, he’ll miss the opener against Pittsburgh because he’s suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Even when he comes back, the Falcons aren’t going to ask Babineaux to stay on the field as much as he did last year. Jerry is expected to be fully healthy for the opener and the Falcons are very happy with third-round draft pick Corey Peters, who should be a big part of the rotation. Although Anderson still is getting some work at end, he’s probably going to get more time at tackle because the Falcons have asked him to bulk up for a bigger role in the interior.
That’s actually good news for Babineaux. When a defensive tackle is playing as much as Babineaux did last year, he’s bound to get tired at times. In a rotation, the Falcons will be able to keep Babineaux, who led the team with 6.5 sacks last season, much fresher.
The other guy that jumped out at me was defensive end John Abraham. He averaged 42.3 snaps a game last year. Now, that might not sound far off of Smith’s goal of 35 to 40 snaps for each defensive lineman. But Abraham’s a little different than the rest because of his age. Abraham was on the field for 676 plays (65.4 percent) last season. I think the Falcons would like to keep Abraham to 35 or fewer snaps a game to maximize his ability as a pass-rusher.
Keep in mind, Abraham’s production dropped last season. He produced only 5.5 sacks. That came after he produced 16.5 in 2008. So I went back and checked on Abraham’s 2008 playing time. In that season, Abraham was on the field for 60 percent of the plays. That might not sound like a huge difference from last year, but it’s significant when you’re talking about a player of Abraham’s age.
I think what the Falcons want to do with Abraham this year is keep him fresh and try to limit his play, as much as possible, to obvious pass-rushing situations.
That might mean using Chauncey Davis, who was on the field for 49 percent of last year’s plays, mostly on running downs and Anderson still will get some work on the outside in those situations. But the two defensive ends who are likely to see their playing time increase are Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury. Biermann was in for 46.9 percent of last year’s snaps. Sidbury was only on the field for 10.3 percent of the defensive plays. Both of those guys are young and the Falcons think they’re emerging as pass-rushers. I think you can count on Biermann and Sidbury being on the field more often this season.