Umenyiora set to make most of limited role

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Another session of organized team activities this week meant another day of Osi Umenyiora essentially being a spectator.

The veteran defensive end still works hard in drills and still encourages his teammates. If he’s the least bit frustrated with not getting many reps, he seems to mask his feelings behind an infectious smile.

The team’s transition to a 3-4 base defense and the awkwardness of playing outside linebacker has limited Umenyiora to the same role he assumed at the end of the 2013 campaign.

"We’re looking at him as the DPR, where we were playing him at the end of the season," Falcons coach Mike Smith said, referring to designated pass-rusher. "That’s what his role is going to be.

"I hope [his regular-season reps] are a lot. That means they’re throwing a lot and that means we’re in the lead. In a 60-play game, you’re looking somewhere in between 25 and 35 [snaps]. He’ll be fresh. I think it will be a very good thing. And I think at the end of last season, when we put him in as a defensive pass-rusher and that’s all he was doing and his number of snaps went down, I thought he was much more productive.’’

Umenyiora, who turns 33 in November, isn’t trying to fool himself. He understands he’s not the same dominant player he was during his All-Pro years with the New York Giants. At the same time, the prideful side of him wants to remain an every-down player.

"I’m going to do whatever they tell me to do," Umenyiora said. "Obviously, I feel like it’s difficult to make an impact just coming in on third down. I think that’s pretty hard to do. But if that’s what they ask me to do, that’s exactly what I’m going to do."

Big bodies such as nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson were brought in to stop the run. Umenyiora understood the logic, but he firmly believes he is capable of contributing as a run-defender.

"I hold my own against the run," he said. "I’ve never been great at it, but I’ve never been bad like some think, either. To say I’m a better pass-rusher than run player has always been an honest assessment, though."

Such pass-rush ability is the reason the Falcons made a financial commitment to Umenyiora and opted not to cut his pay in this, the final year of his contract. He is due to make $3.5 million and will count $4.75 million against the salary cap.

Some would argue that's a hefty price for a third-down or situational pass-rusher. In fact, Smith’s thought of Umenyiora playing up to 35 reps seems rather optimistic. In last year’s season opener against Drew Brees and pass-happy New Orleans, for example, the Saints had just 11 third-down passing situations.

Regardless, Umenyiora is intent on making the most of his opportunities coming off a year in which he led the Falcons with 7.5 sacks. The Falcons plan to be multiple, and he’ll sub in as a pass-rusher as needed. Obvious passing situations are likely to result in a 4-3 look, with Umenyiora and Jonathan Massaquoi rushing from the edges and a combination of Malliciah Goodman, Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and rookie Ra’Shede Hageman pushing from inside.

Umenyiora has slimmed down from 260 pounds to 250 with a focus on improving his speed for such situations.

"I feel like I’m coming off the ball really good," Umenyiora said. "I’m a little lighter than I was before. I wanted to increase my speed that way. So I think my speed is where I need it to be."

Umenyiora also wanted to add a new wrinkle to his arsenal. He started practicing a spin move after watching tapes of Dwight Freeney’s success with it. His plan, however, was altered.

"I think I have the same type of speed and get-off as [Freeney], and it’s a nice little changeup, but when I went out there and tried it in practice, they blocked the hell out of me," Umenyiora said with a laugh. "Sam [Baker] rejected that spin move."

There is a more important element to Umenyiora sharpening his pass-rush skills. In practice, he typically works with the defensive ends and defensive tackles during individual drills rather than the outside linebackers. It makes sense, considering it allows him to spend more time with new defensive line coach Bryan Cox.

"He’s a very good coach," Umenyiora said of Cox. "Even though he was a linebacker, he went out there and rushed. A lot of the things that he talks about are things that he not only did, but things he knows worked. It’s a lot of hand work, a lot of leverage. He tells me things every day that I need to work on.

"I don’t think he’s going to ask people to do things that he knows aren’t possible -- I think they call it 'coachspeak,' where a coach is just telling you to do something that the players know is going to be almost impossible to do, but because the guy never played before, he think it’s possible. With Brian, he tells you things that he knows that can be done."

After registering just 32 sacks last season and having the league’s worst third-down defense, the Falcons and Umenyiora simply need to find a way to get it done with their pass rush.