Vic Beasley's Breakout Has Masked a Lot of Issues for the Atlanta Falcons' Defense
Just a year ago, Vic Beasley was a bust. The eighth overall pick in the 2015 draft finished his rookie season with just four sacks despite starting all 16 games as the Atlanta Falcons boasted one of the worst pass-rushing units in the entire league.
They're not calling Beasley a bust anymore.
Now, they're calling him a playmaker, a title he earned in helping push his Falcons all the way to Super Bowl LI, where they'll face the New England Patriots this Sunday.
Beasley led the league with 15.5 sacks for the regular season, but his overall value to this specific Falcons team may actually go further than that number can illustrate. And if they want to defeat Tom Brady and the Patriots, they're going to need this dude to beast out one more time.
Let's get a better look at Beasley's impact this year with the help of numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), the metric we use to track the expected points teams and players gain or lose on each play throughout the season. For Beasley, we'll be focusing on Sack NEP, which shows the number of expected points an opposing offense lost due to sacks, an area where Beasley was obviously a major contributor.
The Falcons face a daunting task this week in going up against one of the best quarterbacks of all time. Can Beasley and the Falcons' pass rush give the offense a chance to win it? It certainly won't be an easy task, but this appears to be their best hope.
Once cornerback Desmond Trufant went down for the season with a torn pectoral, things weren't looking too snazzy for the Falcons. Their defense had been below average even before that, and losing their best piece certainly didn't figure to help. Beasley helped keep things afloat.
Overall, opponents facing the Falcons lost 66.68 NEP due to sacks for the season, the sixth-highest mark in the league. Part of that was due to the high volume of pass attempts that they saw after building leads, but they still fare well when we view things on a per-drop back basis.
Here's a comparison of the Falcons' marks in Sack NEP per drop back over the past two seasons. It's not a coincidence that this all happened at the same time as Beasley's breakout.
|Season||Drop Backs||Sack NEP||Sack NEP per Drop Back||Rank|
This barrage of sacks helped the Falcons go from being one of the worst pass rushes in the entire league to respectability. And it couldn't have come at a better time.
Trufant played his final game of the season back in Week 9, leaving seven regular-season games and two in the postseason where the team was in the ocean without a life vest. But -- as numberFire's Joe Redemann wrote last week -- they actually improved after their Week 11 bye, a period in which Trufant was watching from the sidelines.
Beasley was a big part of that turnaround.
This chart breaks the Falcons' regular season into two segments, with the first being when Trufant was healthy and the second after his season-ending injury. Beasley and company really cranked up the heat when they needed it most.
|Split||Games||Drop Backs||Sack NEP per Drop Back||Beasley Sacks|
After Trufant's injury, Beasley averaged more than a sack per game and had at least one in every game except for two. If you're going to mask a banged-up secondary, there's no better way to do it than by rubbing the opposing quarterback's grill in the turf.
Beasley hasn't recorded a sack yet in these playoffs, but the pass rush as a whole has continued to feast. They had -0.09 Sack NEP per drop back combined between their games against the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers, helping to keep Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers in check. That's the good.
The bad is that they'll face their stiffest competition this week in the Patriots.
The Falcons overall ranked 22nd against the pass and 31st against the rush this year, according to numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics. The only area in which they did well defensively was getting to the passer, meaning they probably need to do exactly that if they want to defeat New England.
There's only one problem here: no team in football was better at keeping their quarterback upright this year than the Patriots.
On 572 total drop backs, the Patriots' offense lost just 32.05 Sack NEP the entire season. They were one of only two teams below 35 with the Oakland Raiders being the other. The Patriots' mark of -0.06 just edged out the Raiders for the best Sack NEP per drop back in football.
If the Falcons can't cause chaos for Brady, they'll need to rely upon the secondary to stop Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and others. Based on what happened during the regular season, that seems like a losing gamble.
They're going to need Beasley to reach back into his bag of tricks and duplicate his late-season magic if they want to slow this unit, but it's something he has shown he can do when the team needs him most.
The Falcons' season should have been done when Trufant was placed on injured reserve. The defense was already struggling, and it's a tall ask of the offense to do all of the work itself. But Beasley's run of destruction kept that from happening.
The pass-rushing unit has shown in these playoffs that they can get to the quarterback against quality foes and disrupt the opposing passing game. Neither the Packers nor the Seahawks were as good at preventing sacks during the regular season as the Patriots, though, meaning that the Falcons' past success is not an indication of future expectations.
Regardless of what's expected, it seems as if Beasley's abilities to get to Brady will be a prerequisite for hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
We know the Falcons can get the job done with their offense. It's something they've proven over and over throughout the year. But in order to win, they're going to need to get a stop at some point, and with Beasley playing the way that he has of late, they at least know the formula for doing so, even if the matchup is a frightening one.