Why Troy Andersen might be the future of the middle of the Falcons' defense

Falcons linebacker Troy Andersen started the final five games of his rookie season. Erik S. Lesser/EPA

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Troy Andersen was pressing too much. He knew it. It was early in his rookie year with the Atlanta Falcons, and he was too focused on making sure he was doing the right thing and being in the right spot every time.

It took a little while, but Andersen learned perfection was an ideal but not a needed reality. It’s nice to strive for, sure, but to do what he was doing as a linebacker it didn’t -- it couldn’t -- be that way.

“Sometimes you just gotta go make plays and play free and loose and let your skills and your preparation really take you and lead you,” Andersen said. "It doesn’t have to be perfect all the time.”

Andersen’s rookie year wasn’t perfect but an indication of what could be in the future. He became a starter by season’s end, logging 466 snaps and making 62 tackles with a forced fumble. But it also became clear there was enough potential to believe in his future.

How Andersen fits in whatever changes new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen makes remain unknown. His on-field traits, though, would indicate Anderson could do anything the Falcons might want him to.

Andersen said he needs to work on his tackling this offseason -- he believes he has to be more consistent there -- and that what he struggled with the most last season was the pace of opposing offenses and how they got into different formations while adjusting defensively at the same time.

To help understand, Andersen drew the formations himself and said this is where he’s supposed to be in the run game or if he moved an opponent in a certain direction, this or that could be the result. Seeing it this way came from his background.

When Atlanta drafted him in the second round, it was understood the first year could be a lot of learning. But Andersen was unique. He had a combination of speed and hitting power not every linebacker possessed and an interesting career path at Montana State where he played quarterback, running back and linebacker.

Those varying experiences, in some ways, helped him adjust.

“It just helps you conceptually understand how offenses are trying to attack,” Andersen said. “Just gap schemes, what those are. Zone schemes, how they’re trying to climb up to the next level. I do think that it helps me understand it.”

It might have permeated into how Andersen plays in ways he doesn’t realize. More than most linebackers he can understand what a quarterback might be thinking or where an offense might be headed with a certain play because he was Montana State’s starting quarterback as a sophomore after being a running back/linebacker as a freshman and doing the same again as a junior.

By his senior year at Montana State, Andersen played mostly at linebacker and became the FCS defensive player of the year. As an NFL rookie, with only one position beyond special teams to worry about, the Falcons' coaches saw how he could adapt to things fast.

“I call it exponential growth,” linebackers coach Frank Bush said. “I think he brought us that. … He really is just starting to go forward.”

What that might look like, again, is unclear, but he’s perhaps the most versatile player Atlanta has in the middle of its defense. Rashaan Evans is a free agent. Andersen replaced Mykal Walker in the lineup.

When one focuses on the linebackers of the future in Atlanta, it should start with Andersen because of how he can be used -- anywhere from a pass-rusher to being able to defend a tight end or running back because of his speed and coverage skills -- and what he has been able to show.

“The game is played differently now,” Bush said. “It’s spread out. They throw it a lot and just when you think they are going to try and throw, they run it up your you-know-what. It’s important to have a guy that understands the defense well enough to be able to do those things and then he has the physical tools to do those things.

“We’re excited about the kid.”