ATLANTA — Monday’s press conference to formally announce that Mike Smith had been released from his contract wasn’t all about the Atlanta Falcons parting ways with the most successful coach in franchise history. Stuck away toward the end of the meeting, team owner Arthur Blank and general manager Thomas Dimitroff discussed the failures of this team over the past few years to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
More important than beating the fact to death that Atlanta finished next to last in the NFL in sacks in 2014, was listening to the reason why the Falcons may have floundered of late.
The Falcons didn’t add a true pass-rusher — either in free agency or the draft — prior to the 2014 season, even though it was an area of great need. That may be because Smith and Dimitroff couldn’t agree on how to build the defense, and Smith eventually won the argument and got his way.
Blank explained his philosophy on pressuring the quarterback in the NFL.
"Clearly we have not had the kind of pass rush for a number of years that I think is important in this league," Blank said. "Even the better quarterbacks in this league, when they’re under tremendous pressure they make more mistakes than they do if they’re not.
"So, in my opinion pressure is a really big deal. And we have not had pressure. We just have not, for a variety of reasons. You can get into that debate; is it coaching, is it scheming, is it players?"
Now that Smith is no longer with the team, coaching and scheming will no longer be an issue when it comes to an excuse as to why the Falcons had an abysmal pass rush. But the question still remains about the players that have been added — and some that have not — to help attack opposing quarterbacks.
For some time the general consensus was that Smith and Nolan were having trouble working with the talent pool in Atlanta. The lack of a pass rush meant there was no one here capable of truly making a difference. The talent pool was supposed to be Dimitroff’s game.
According to Blank, that wasn’t the case.
"The design — and Smitty felt strongly, Mike Nolan felt strongly about this, I think Thomas was certainly supportive of it — Thomas had strong feelings that we needed to get more pressure," Blank said. "Smitty and Mike, and others felt that we needed to build from the inside out, we needed to be able to stop the run and that in and of itself would create opportunities.
"Coach Nolan felt that with his schemes that he would be able to put enough pressure on quarterbacks. Certainly against the Saints that was true, against probably a Hall of Fame quarterback. It didn’t carry over, wasn’t there consistently throughout the year for sure, and certainly wasn’t there again yesterday (against the Panthers)."
From how vehemently Blank said he feels about pressuring opposing quarterbacks, he paints a picture of he and Dimitroff sitting on one side of an argument, with Smith and Nolan on the other. Owner and general manager wanted pass-rushers, head coach and defensive coordinator wanted interior linemen to help stop the run.
Eventually Dimitroff allowed Smith to call the shot.
"This is a very collaborative organization," said Dimitroff. "We work closely with the coaching staff, which is the only way it should be. A general manager should never force feed talent on a staff. Smitty and I worked together closely. Ultimately it was my choice to agree to the free-agency moves, and that’s what we did. We feel we have some good players that we can continue to work with."
Dimitroff was speaking of the moves to bring in defensive end Tyson Jackson and defensive tackle Paul Soliai during free agency to help stop the run. He said their seasons were filled with ups and downs, and that "they’re not a part of necessarily the pressure we’re looking for."
No one should second-guess Atlanta’s first pick in the 2014 draft, offensive tackle Jake Matthews. Fixing the offensive line was an area of great need. But the Falcons confused many when in the second round, instead of selecting a pure pass-rusher, they picked defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman. There were many pass-rushers still on the board.
Immediately after the pick was made, the Falcons told the media they were classifying Hageman as a defensive end and moving him to the five-technique. While that might have sounded like they were going to turn him into a pass-rusher, Dimitroff dispelled that idea. "He (Hageman) was not drafted to come in and pass-rush," Dimitroff said some seven months after the draft. "He was drafted to be a guy that was going to be helping us build from the inside out."
There’s that term "inside out." Blank used that to describe how Smith and Nolan wanted to construct this defense. Therefore, it sounds like Hageman was a Smith pick, not one Dimitroff completely wanted.
Instead of using Atlanta’s second-round draft pick on such a huge area of need as rushing the passer — and remember, Blank and Dimitroff both sound like rushing the passer is of the utmost importance — the Falcons added their third tool of the offseason to help stop the run.
Atlanta still ranked 21st in the league against the run, and still don’t have a pass-rusher.
With Smith gone, will Atlanta’s draft and offseason strategy change? It’s abundantly clear that Blank and Dimitroff want to go in a different direction, and now can go out and hire a head coach that will help them drive the bus in the direction they want to go.