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Revamped Falcons Pass Rush Has 'A Lot of Weapons' & Could End 19-Year Drought

The Atlanta Falcons have struggled rushing the passer for years ... but this season could be different, thanks to a blend of new, savvy veterans, returning leaders and young talents expected to take a step forward.

The year is 2004.

"Yeah!" by Usher sits atop the list of top 100 singles, the Atlanta Braves won the National League East for the 10th consecutive year and George W. Bush won re-election over John Kerry.

Elsewhere, the Atlanta Falcons have the league's best pass rush with 48 sacks, edging the Philadelphia Eagles by one en route to an NFC South title before falling to Philly in the NFC Championship.

Fast forward to 2023; the Falcons just completed the first round of OTAs and have a new sense of optimism and outside expectations that have evaded them in years past.

But why 2004? Why, as Usher once said, take that and rewind it back ... some 19 years?

Rather than looking for lessons, it provides context - the Falcons haven't ranked in the top-five, let alone top-10, in sacks since the 2004 campaign.

By now, everybody knows the numbers behind Atlanta's struggles - last in sacks in 2021 with 18, second-to-last this past season with 21 ... and last across the last two years, trailing second-to-last (the Las Vegas Raiders) by 23 sacks.

For added context, the Falcons' two-year sack totals of 38 would be tied for 21st league-wide in 2022 alone and still 32 sacks off the Eagles' league-leading 70 sacks.

But Atlanta believes this year will be different - thanks to an array of new additions paired with several returning players who provide plenty of promise.

Just ask one of those new additions - defensive end Calais Campbell, who has 15 years of experience under his belt and has been a part of plenty of talented defenses - and he'll rave about the Falcons' talent.

The 6-8, 282-pound Campbell prefers playing defensive end over tackle, though he understands why coaches put him inside - in his words, he does a "really good job" there and it's difficult to find quality interior players.

But that's not a problem for the Falcons, he believes, with returning defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and Ta'Quon Graham being joined by free agent signee David Onyemata and the unretired Eddie Goldman.

There's also plenty of promise on the edge, with 2022 Day 2 picks Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone reuniting with Lorenzo Carter, while Campbell and former double-digit sack producer Bud Dupree both arrive from the outside.

The result? Perhaps the best defensive line the Falcons have thrown on the field in quite some time ... maybe even since 2004.

"There are really, really good interior guys already," Campbell said. "It allows me to be on the outside and go out there and make my presence felt. And we've got a great d-line - you see a lot of veterans, a lot of talented young guys with potential, and we're working."

Naturally, there may be a sense of "I'll believe it when I see it" - but optimism surrounding Atlanta's pass rush really shouldn't be too far-fetched.

Jarrett and Onyemata are two of the better interior pressure players in the league, while Graham had eight quarterback hits and six pressures across 11 games during an encouraging 2022 season, his second as a professional.

The Falcons know what Carter can do; he's proven to be a steady, four-sack contributor who ranked second on the team in quarterback hits last season with 12.

There's a lot of excitement within Atlanta's buildings relating to Ebiketie, who had 11 hits, four pressures and two and a half sacks as a rookie; he was in the midst of the best run of his career and had been named Falcons defensive player of the week against the Chicago Bears before a wrist injury in Week 12 reduced his snaps (and effectiveness) to close out the year.

Malone had one sack and a pair of quarterback hits and hurries but had four tackles for loss and proved he could play in space; whether it be as a pass rusher or chess piece, his athleticism and versatility fits well with new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen.

And what else is there to say about Campbell and Dupree? Persuaded by Falcons coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot this spring, Campbell joins Atlanta amidst questions about his age (36), but he would've ranked second on the Dirty Birds in sacks (five and a half) and quarterback hits (14) last year.

One could argue that says more about the Falcons than Campbell - but the point stands that he's still an effective player capable of producing, all the while dishing valuable lessons for Atlanta's young defenders.

The latter is also true for Dupree, who recorded only seven sacks across the past two seasons with the Tennessee Titans after signing a mega deal, but he feels he's just now getting back to full health from his torn ACL in 2020, which was followed by abdominal, groin and pectoral issues.

Can Dupree return to the form he showed with the Pittsburgh Steelers? That much remains to be seen ... but he's also not going to be relied upon to be that guy.

Oh, and how about third-round rookie defensive end Zach Harrison? Fresh off an All-Big Ten first-team selection, Harrison isn't expected to be a significant contributor by Atlanta's staff, but he's viewed as an ascending player with a bright future who should see snaps while getting a doctorate in pass rushing from Campbell, Dupree, Nielsen and others.

In conclusion, Campbell's statement of the Falcons having a "great" defensive line is certainly valid - to the extent that snap splits and getting everyone on the field has become perhaps the biggest question, which is a long way from wondering where the pass rush will come from.

But as opposed to focusing on "who," Campbell spoke about "what" - particularly, what Atlanta's defensive line rotation has the potential to accomplish.

"It's football - we'll figure it out," Campbell said. "It's good to have a lot of weapons. We'll build that bond, we go out there and we sell out every play and you exhaust yourself on the football field and rotate and we all make plays, there's enough to go around."

As for himself, Campbell joked that he could be put anywhere other than safety or corner and be productive but remains adamant that his greatest value comes at defensive end.

"I'm going to be the most productive there - I can help the team win the most there," Campbell said. "I'm a football player, you put me anywhere (and) I'll go out there and give it my best and probably do a really good job.

"But on the football field, defensive end is where I feel like I'm going to be the most dominant."

And really, perhaps nothing shows the growth of Atlanta's pass rush quite like that - in a league full of options, Campbell chose the Falcons, and more specifically, chose defensive end.

In previous years, Atlanta would be focused on maximizing all that Campbell has in the tank ... but not this year. There are legitimate options both next to and behind him in the rotation, and immense potential to break the 19-year spell.

And with "a lot of weapons" and new faces to boot, the idea may not be so Ludacris after all.

You can follow Daniel Flick on Twitter @DFlickDraft

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