The film didn’t lie. It just stretched John Abraham’s 2009 season into something much better than it looked on paper.
Those 5.5 sacks that were easily the lowest total in any season in which he’s played more than eight games? Well, they were a concern for the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive end. After all, he was 31 last season and his sack total had dropped by 11 from 2008.
“I thought maybe I was losing something, so let me check," Abraham said. “I sat down and started watching the tape, really watching it honestly. I walked away feeling like I’m still a valuable player for this team. I didn’t play bad last year. As I watched the tape, I didn’t feel like I lost a step. There were times when I got there, but the sacks just didn’t happen. I thought I had a pretty good year last year."
“Pretty good" is being pretty generous when you talk about Abraham or any of Atlanta’s defensive linemen last year. It was a problem spot, one that helped cost the Falcons a second straight trip to the playoffs. The Falcons had only 28 sacks and their leader was defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who is supposed to be a run-stuffer, with six.
Defensive ends Kroy Biermann, Jamaal Anderson, Chauncey Davis and Lawrence Sidbury, the guys who were supposed to join Abraham in the pass rush, combined to produce 7.5 sacks -- and Biermann had five of those.
After a victory in San Francisco in October, Abraham went on a nine-game stretch in which he produced only half a sack. That coincided with a stretch in which the Falcons pretty much fell out of playoff contention.
As much as Abraham believes he was “pretty good" last year, he knows another season of 5.5 sacks isn’t going to suffice. He needs to get back somewhere close to being the dominant pass-rusher in the NFC South and he needs some help from his teammates.
“It’s time for us to be the strength of the defense and not the weakness," Abraham said. “Last year, we didn’t play up to our potential. I call myself out for that and I’ll call everybody else out on the D-line too. It’s not just one person. As a whole D-line, we’ve got to step up and play better."
So what did the Falcons do in the offseason to address their pass rush? Really, nothing dramatic at all. They drafted linebacker Sean Weatherspoon in the first round, who brings a little bit of ability to help the pass rush as a blitzer. They selected defensive tackle Corey Peters in the third round and he can bring a push to the middle, but his main strength is as a run-stuffer.
When it came to defensive ends, the Falcons stayed with what they had.
“Biermann and Sidbury are both guys that we think are going to continue to develop," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “And we think they’ll take big steps this year."
Maybe they will, but the success of Atlanta’s defense may truly come down to Abraham. Why are the Falcons so confident that a guy who turned 32 in May can bounce back from a season that, at least statistically, wasn’t anywhere close to the standard he has set?
“Believe me, we studied John on tape a lot and we studied his history," Smith said. “One trend throughout John’s career is that every third or fourth year, historically, he’s had a year where his numbers drop. What we saw last year was a guy who was still getting a lot of pressure on quarterbacks. The sacks didn’t always come, but that wasn’t really his fault."
Talk to Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff and they’ll tell you the sack production by Abraham and the rest of the defensive line last season was impacted by the defensive secondary. The Falcons lost cornerback Brian Williams to injury early, Chris Houston never endeared himself to the coaching staff and the Falcons were rotating a lot of other cornerbacks.
That’s why the Falcons went out this offseason and made their sole splurge in free agency, signing cornerback Dunta Robinson to a huge contract. They also re-signed Williams, traded Houston and put their faith in the belief that Brent Grimes, Christopher Owens and Chevis Jackson can continue to grow and safety William Moore can make an impact after missing most of his rookie season with an injury.
In short, the Falcons believe they improved their defensive line by improving their defensive secondary.
“I’m not trying to knock our secondary,’’ Abraham said. “I think there were just a lot of young guys that maybe weren’t as confident as they’re going to be this year. With the addition of Dunta, that’s going to help us out a lot.’’
In theory, the addition of Robinson and the return of Williams might tie up receivers a little bit longer and force quarterbacks to hold the ball an extra split second. Just that little bit of time might be enough to turn some of the 12 quarterback hurries Abraham had last season into sacks. Same for Biermann, who was credited with eight hurries.
Throw in the return of defensive tackle Peria Jerry, who suffered an injury early in his rookie season. Jerry was Atlanta’s top pick last season and there were early signs that he was more than a run-stuffer and had the ability to generate a surge in the middle.
Give Sidbury, who had one sack as a rookie, another year of growth and maybe it all adds up to an improved pass rush for the Falcons.
But the real key here is Abraham. He has spent most of his career as an elite pass-rusher and has recorded double-digit sacks in five seasons. Even though Abraham believes his play wasn’t bad last season, he’s the first to admit his production needs to increase for Atlanta to have a shot at the playoffs.
“I don’t think I’ve lost a step or anything like that," Abraham said. “After watching the film, I think last year was one of those years where things just didn’t work out the way you want for a number of reasons. But I can’t sit here and tell you I’ll be happy if I have another season with 5.5 sacks. If I do that, then maybe I’m losing a step. We can’t have another season like that."