It's far too early to call the free agent signing of Ray Edwards a failed experiment, but even his most staunch of supporters will acknowledge that 2011 was a letdown. Coming off two consecutive 8+ sack seasons in Minnesota, the thought was Atlanta could plug him in across from Jon Abraham, and have one of the better pass rushing tandems in the NFC. Sadly he failed to make a huge impact after totaling just 3.5 sacks in 16 games.
The Falcons needed to improve their pass rush, and fifth round pick Jonathan Massaquoi was supposed to do just that, but lately there's been another pass rusher turning heads in training camp-- Lawrence Sidbury, now heading into his forth year. 2011 was his coming out party after a lackluster rookie and Sophomore campaign. While the 266 lb defensive end didn't manage to start, he made the most of the opportunities given, and finished the season with four sacks. Heading into the traditional Friday Night Lights scrimmage Sidbury was already looking impressive, but he really separated himself at Peachtree Ridge High School, finishing the night with two sacks he was awarded one of two game balls for the evening practice.
In a hybrid defensive end/linebacker position he roamed around the field, and was used in a variety of looks. Speaking to the AJC, Sidbury characterized his role on the Falcons this season:
"We have a lot of different looks, it's simple for us, but we try to make it look complicated for the opposition. You never know what we are going to do. We have a lot of things that we can do. We can bring pressure from every where. You don't know who is going to be covering. It's fun. At the same time, it's a very disciplined defense, too."
This is the Mike Nolan effect in full swing. Well versed in using multi-faceted players, and bringing pressure from around the field it's this notion of 3-4 sensibilities being brought into a 4-3 base defense that the Falcons hope will really separate the wheat from the chaff in the NFC South. With both Sidbury and Massaquoi fitting the role of the ubiquitous 'tweener' they have the size needed to bring down QBs, combined with near-linebacker speeds. Pairing them with the more traditional Abraham and Edwards could be a very blitz-heavy defensive look we could see utilized this fall.
It was obviously encouraging to hear about Julio Jones stepping up, and the Falcons' known quantities to look better than even in camp, but the mark of a special season is when you get production from unexpected places. If Sidbury can build on his 2011 year, and become a reliable option for Mike Nolan he could be the final piece to the puzzle for the Falcons pass rush.