FLOWERY BRANCH — When the Atlanta Falcons were going through their offseason checklist, they knew it was vital to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
That’s why they doled out a big contract to Ray Edwards.
With the season winding down, the Falcons haven’t gotten much bang for their bucks.
Edwards was supposed to team with John Abraham to give Atlanta a fearsome pair of defensive ends, one coming at the quarterback from the left, the other bearing down from the right. Instead, the Falcons (8-5) have actually dropped in the sack rankings, going into Thursday night’s game against Jacksonville tied for 24th in the NFL.
Abraham has just five sacks, Edwards only three.
“We can’t really worry about sacks,” said Edwards, who signed a five-year deal that guarantees him at least $11 million. “We’ve just got to worry about doing our jobs.”
But he’s clearly disappointed with his performance, knowing that more — a lot more — was expected from the big-name duo.
“A sack-fest, right?” Edwards acknowledged, managing a bit of a smile. “I’m just going to continue working to put pressure on the quarterback and hopefully the sacks will come.”
Only six teams have fewer sacks than Atlanta’s 25. Compare that with the league-leading Baltimore Ravens, who have nearly twice as many (45). In fact, the Falcons are roughly on the same pace as they were a year ago, when they ranked 20th with 31 sacks.
Edwards signed with the Falcons shortly after the lockout ended, but he was still recovering from offseason knee surgery — perhaps a result of moonlighting as a boxer. He has played in every game but struggled to regain the full mobility he needs to beat blockers. Barring a sudden turnaround, he’ll come up far short of the eight sacks he had a year ago for the Minnesota Vikings, or the career-best 8.5 he produced in 2009.
Abraham’s drop-off is even more striking. The 33-year-old made the Pro Bowl a year ago with 13 sacks, even while facing persistent double teams and not getting much help from the other end position.
But, after coming up with two sacks in the season-opening loss at Chicago, Abraham hasn’t been much of a factor. He hurt his hip and went more than a month before his next sack. He hasn’t put together sacks in back-to-back games all season.
“John had a monster season last year,” coach Mike Smith said after practice Tuesday. “A lot of it is based on how people are trying to protect. We’ve haven’t had the opportunity in certain games to rush like we would like to.”
Smith has said repeatedly that sacks are overrated. He’s more concerned about getting pressure on the quarterbacks, forcing them into poor throws and bad reads. Edwards did get to Cam Newton in last weekend’s win over Carolina, but a bigger play was when the rookie quarterback attempted to dump the ball off as he was being tackled. Linebacker Mike Peterson came up with an interception, and the Falcons quickly struck for a touchdown that helped them overcome a 16-point halftime deficit.
“In our book,” Peterson said, “that counts as a sack.”
There are other mitigating factors.
The Falcons have faced plenty of mobile quarterbacks, including Newton twice, Philadelphia’s Michael Vick and Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman. Also, they’ve gone against rookies the last four weeks — which, Peterson maintains, cuts into the sack chances because young QBs are more likely to get rid of the ball at the first sign of pressure, whereas a veteran will hang in the pocket a little longer to let the route develop.
“You’ve got to go a little more in-depth,” Peterson said. “Look at the quarterbacks we’ve been playing. All of them are scramblers or young guys getting rid of the ball. We’ve not played a lot of quarterbacks who just sit back there in pocket and we’re giving those guys chances to just sling the ball around.”
Still, there’s little doubt the Falcons haven’t gotten the pressure they were expecting when they added Edwards to their pass rush.
“Of course we’re not satisfied with the sack number,” said defensive tackle Corey Peters, who has as many as Edwards. “It’s awful. Basically, that’s how you judge a defensive lineman. A lot of people are just going to look at the stat sheet and say, ‘This guy has 10 sacks, this guy has five, so the guy with 10 must be better.’”
NOTES: CB Brent Grimes (knee) worked out on the side with the trainers during practice, but Smith said it’s doubtful he’ll be ready to play against the Jaguars. Most likely, Grimes will be back for the next game, Dec. 26 against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. ... Two days after being hospitalized in Charlotte for a medical scare that was never fully explained, Smith said he was feeling “great. I was out on the practice field coaching football.” ... Former starting LT Sam Baker will continue to work at guard as long as he’s in a backup role. Smith said the second-stringers must be able to play both tackle and guard when the Falcons only dress seven offensive linemen, as they did against the Panthers.