Coming into the 2016 season, one of the biggest concerns for the Atlanta Falcons was whether they'd be able to pressure opposing quarterbacks following a league-low 19-sack performance in 2015.
Well, the trio of Vic Beasley Jr., Adrian Clayborn and newly added seven-time Pro Bowler Dwight Freeney helped alleviate some of those concerns as the Falcons surpassed last year's sack total with 21 sacks through the first nine games. The Falcons are currently tied for 15th in the league with 24 sacks.
Now as the Falcons prepare for the stretch run toward the playoffs, they'll have to maintain the ability to generate pressure without one member of the aforementioned trio.
Clayborn is expected to miss at least a month after tearing the MCL in his left knee against the Cardinals, sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter. The veteran defensive lineman also will go through more testing to determine the extent of meniscus damage.
Clayborn, who is first on the team with 15 quarterback hits and second with 4.5 sacks, brings a relentless approach to the rush group. Without him, Beasley and Freeney will have to maintain a high level of play and even take it up a notch.
It starts with Beasley, the former first-round draft pick who has enjoyed a breakout season with 9.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and 12 quarterback hits. He didn't have a sack in Sunday's 38-19 win over the Arizona Cardinals, but Beasley still made a significant impact, forcing an intentional grounding by Carson Palmer on one play.
Beasley has benefited from the addition of Freeney, who coach Dan Quinn emphasized Monday was brought in to rush the passer, not just be a mentor. And Freeney appreciates how receptive Beasley has been through the process.
"With Vic, man, his athletic ability surprises you," Freeney said. "Vic is not a small guy by any means. For him to be able to bend the way he does and make plays and learn so quickly to pick stuff up, it's good man."
As for Freeney, the 36-year-old was brought in solely as a nickel rusher. He typically gets Wednesdays off to help preserve his body, and Freeney had more extensive rest after suffering a Grade 2 quadriceps tear in a loss to San Diego. But with Clayborn out of the lineup, the Falcons could opt to increase Freeney's reps, considering his legs should be fresh.
Plus, Freeney's leadership ability is an added bonus.
"I'm going to try and make sure guys are in position to make plays," Freeney said. "I'm teaching them as much as I possibly can with how much time I've got left. You know what I'm saying?"
There are other options to make up for Clayborn's absence. Brooks Reed is likely to get more reps as a nickel rusher, while versatile Courtney Upshaw could rush off the edge rather than just from the interior. The Falcons experimented with using linebacker Philip Wheeler as an edge rusher immediately after Clayborn went down.
Maybe the biggest adjustment will be coordinating the stunts. Clayborn and Freeney seemed to develop a rhythm rushing together off the right side. Now Freeney has to get comfortable doing the same with others.
However it all aligns in the coming weeks, the Falcons can't take a step back in terms of generating pressure. The last thing they want to do is enter the playoffs with a nonexistent pass rush.