FLOWERY BRANCH, — The Atlanta Falcons have taken care of the offense. They got started on improving the defense Saturday.
The Falcons used the 24th pick in the NFL draft to take Mississippi’s Peria Jerry, who led the Southeastern Conference and ranked second in the nation among defensive tackles with 18 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. In the second round, Atlanta stuck with the defensive theme, taking Missouri safety William Moore with the 55th choice overall.
The draft concludes today with the remaining five rounds.
“I feel fairly pleased after day one,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “There will be more stress on the defense going forward.”
Over the last two seasons, the 6-foot-2, 290-pound Jerry had 32 tackles for losses and 10.5 sacks. The Falcons desperately needed someone to bolster their defensive line, which is especially thin on the inside.
“We’ve said from the very beginning that we wanted to be a team that can run the football and stop the run,” second-year coach Mike Smith said. “Last year, we addressed running the football. This year, we’ve taken the first step toward stopping the run. Peria is a very aggressive, hard-nosed, tough football player.”
Jerry will likely replace Grady Jackson, one of five defensive starters who left in free agency. Jonathan Babineaux is the only other established tackle on the roster.
“Mike was wondering when we were going to make a move on the defensive side,” Dimitroff said of his coach, a former defensive coordinator. “I know he’s pretty fired up right now.”
Smith smiled. The Falcons made the playoffs last year despite a defense that ranked 24th in total yards allowed (348 per game) and 25th against the run.
Jerry should help improve those numbers.
“He’s a guy who’s very disruptive. He creates plays in the backfield,” Smith said. “It’s very important to have negative-yardage plays because you put teams in an unmanageable down and distance. That’s the thing we’re most impressed about with him.”
Moore, who set a school record with eight interceptions in 2007, struggled through an injury plagued senior season. But he still managed to make 86 tackles and return an interception for a touchdown.
The Falcons will give the 6-0, 221-pound Moore a chance to replace strong safety Lawyer Milloy, another of the departed starters.
“He definitely brings speed and urgency to our defense,” Dimitroff said. “We’re fired up to have William jump on board for us.”
Moore likely would have been a first-round pick if he had entered the draft after his junior season. But he dropped off after a sprained foot plagued him the entire season, causing him to miss two full games and parts of two others.
“I know what I can do and what type of player I am,” Moore said. “It just makes me more hungry.”
Last year, offense was the primary focus of Dimitroff’s rebuilding effort. The Falcons drafted quarterback Matt Ryan at No. 3 overall, traded up to get another first-round pick that was used for offensive tackle Sam Baker, and doled out big money to land running back Michael Turner.
Those moved paid off handsomely. Ryan was the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year. Baker quickly earned a starting job as Ryan’s blind-side protector. Turner was the league’s second-leading rusher.
Two days before this year’s draft, the Falcons landed another impact player on offense, acquiring 10-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez from the Kansas City Chiefs for a second-round pick in 2010.
Gonzalez filled the only glaring hole on offense, freeing up the Falcons to pursue defensive help in the draft.
There were plenty of holes to fill after the team lost nearly half the starting unit in free agency. In addition to Jackson and Milloy,
Atlanta gave up five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Keith Brooking, cornerback Domonique Foxworth and another linebacker who started much of the season, Michael Boley.
Jerry was the target all along. The Falcons even went to Oxford, Miss., a couple of weeks ago to give him a private workout, projecting he could still be available at No. 24.
“We want to make sure we have a strong rotation along the defensive line to take some of the pressure off our linebackers and relatively young secondary,” Dimitroff said.
The team actually delivered word of its No. 1 pick on Twitter moments before it was officially announced. Dimitroff and Smith said they weren’t involved in that high-tech conduit.
“I just learned what (Twitter) meant about three days ago,” Dimitroff said.
“I still don’t,” Smith added. “What does it mean?”