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Beasley grows into a beast after rookie year struggles
Vic Beasley returns a fumble for a touchdown Dec. 11 against the Los Angeles Rams. The second-year pro from Clemson led the NFL with 15« sacks plus and six forced fumbles, and was voted the league’s most improved player by The Pro Football Writers of America. - photo by Rick Scuteri

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Richard Smith was sick of being pressed on the same issue.

The Atlanta Falcons’ defensive coordinator watched 2015 first-round draft pick Vic Beasley struggle to meet his high rookie expectations last year, prompting repeated inquiries from reporters. Many hoped the former Clemson All-American would immediately revolutionize the Falcons’ poor pass rush, but he instead recorded only four sacks and 26 total tackles last season.

“I got asked about Vic Beasley,” Smith said during a news conference leading up to the Super Bowl. “I got tired of answering the questions, and I think he did, too.”

Those questions are still being asked over and over again, but the tone of them is much different.

Beasley experienced a drastic turnaround this year, leading the NFL with 15« sacks after moving from defensive end to a hybrid outside linebacker role. His pass-rushing prowess helped position Atlanta for its run to Super Bowl LI against New England tonight in Houston.

An Adairsville native, Beasley grew up a Falcons fan. Now he has a chance to help his home-state team win its first Super Bowl.

“It’s very special,” Beasley said. “It’s a dream come true for me to be able to play in the Super Bowl with the Atlanta Falcons.”

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a three-time Super Bowl MVP, will attempt to shred an Atlanta secondary that has recently tightened up but struggled to defend the pass for most of the regular season.

That’s where Beasley comes in.

“We’re going to put as much pressure on (Brady) as we can,” he said. “It’s the Super Bowl, a chance to get a ring. So we’ve got to do the best we can.”

Beasley certainly has all the tools to fluster the sure-fire Hall of Fame quarterback. Players praised his quickness and length, and most used the phrase “freak athlete” to describe the linebacker’s attributes at 6-foot-3, 246 pounds.

But Beasley’s full potential laid dormant during his rookie season, though his numbers were no small feat.

Smith pointed out Beasley’s four sacks were tied for the most among linebackers and defensive ends selected in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Beasley also led the team in that category last season while setting the rookie franchise sack record.

Yet he fell short of his own lofty goals, partially because of a torn labrum he played through and the first-year learning curve that hinders many rookies.

“As a pass rusher in this league, you usually don’t come in and just dominate the league like that,” free safety Ricardo Allen said. “So now he understands what he had to do and what his strengths were. He just pushed his strengths to another level.”

That process involved a combination of hard work and guidance from veteran teammates.

Smith specifically cited defensive end Dwight Freeney, whose 15-year career includes a Super Bowl championship, for influencing Beasley’s turnaround. Not only does Freeney’s position on the weakside opposite the young pass rusher create schematic disadvantages for opponents, the veteran’s vast knowledge has enhanced Beasley’s understanding of the game.

“I’ve experienced a lot of things that he’s experiencing now,” Freeney said. “As far as making moves when you need to make them, I had a similar body type going up in the league, too.

“So I can kind of tell him, ‘Hey, use a speed move here, use a spin move here, look out for this protection.’ So it’s sort of like raising his football IQ a little bit.”

Couple that with the progress players claim is natural from Year 1 to Year 2 and Beasley’s hard work in the offseason, and it’s no wonder he has become a player capable of wreaking havoc in the backfield.

Take it from right tackle Ryan Schraeder, who often faces Beasley’s rush moves in practice.

“Vic obviously has the physical attributes. He’s a good player,” Schraeder said. “He has really been able to hone in and focus on his craft. I’m really proud of him because he has turned himself into one heck of a player pretty early on in his career.”

The Falcons (13-5) will need Beasley to be at his best against New England (16-2), perennially a top NFL offense with Brady at the helm.  With both Atlanta and New England among the league’s best in turnover margin, Smith and head coach Dan Quinn stressed the importance of takeaways. Beasley has developed into a player who can create turnovers, whether he’s stripping the ball like he has done six times this season or forcing errant throws with his vicious pass rush.

When asked what catalyzed his transformation into what Quinn said he envisioned from the start, the linebacker’s reply was quick and simple.

“Hard work,” Beasley said. “I’ve been spending a lot of time with my coaches and working extremely hard.”

Almost as if he’d answered the question before.

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