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Super Bowl LI: Dependency on Vic Beasley could prove costly for the Falcons

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As the first and only NFL sack leader in Falcon team history, the weight of Atlanta’s season rests on the shoulders of Vic Beasley.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

There is no secret formula for beating Tom Brady in the postseason. No covert strategy involving unique personnel packages or disguised looks that he hasn’t previously experienced. No special code defensive coordinato rs must crack. The only way to stop or impede Tom Brady and the New England offense is, and always has been, to create constant, relentless pressure.

That pressure is Vic Beasley’s responsibility.

The former Clemson Tiger’s league-leading 15.5 sacks accounted for 46% of Atlanta’s team total this season. This figure includes contributions from Adrian Clayborn, the Falcons’ second best 2016 pass rusher, who was placed on IR following the team’s victory over Seattle in the Divisional Round.

If we look behind the accolades and acclaim that come with an NFL sack title, how impactful has Beasley been? Without help from other Falcons defensive personnel, and knowing that consistent pressure is the only way to slow down Tom Brady, just what are Falcons fans expecting on Sunday?

Beasley’s 15.5 sacks are tied for the lowest league-leading mark since Kevin Greene amassed 14.5 for the 1996 Carolina Panthers. But aside from the huge contracts still being shelled out for them, sacks are quickly becoming (if they aren’t already) obsolete as a stand-alone unit of measurement of a pass rusher’s ability. And while Beasley’s sack total is certainly not something to completely disregard, it simply does not tell you enough about the quality of his play and its impact on the game.

Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft), an analyst and writer for Inside the Pylon and scout.com, set out this season to “pull back the curtain” on the sack. He compiled a comprehensive analysis of every sack logged in 2016 by 135 of the NFL’s top edge rushers. His system, which he calls CSP (Contextualized Sack Production), does exactly what its name suggests. By analyzing the circumstances surrounding each individual sack, trends can begin to be uncovered about the true nature of a player’s production.

What does CSP tell us about Vic Beasley’s season? Without going into every detail involved with Ledyard’s evaluation process, at first glance, Beasley’s CSP appeared to substantiate his lofty headline-grabbing sack numbers. 60% of his sacks registered as “high quality”, and his 74.5 snap/high-quality sack ratio was among the best in the project. The other sacks registered in the “cleanup” or “coverage sack” categories.

Everything seemed to check out, until closer attention was paid to the poor quality of the opponents’ personnel that Beasley feasted upon. Here is the breakdown of his “high quality” totals:

  • Four of Beasley’s “HQ” sacks came in a week five match up in Denver (he was credited with 3.5 traditional sacks in the game, but CSP does not count 1/2 sacks, they are counted as full). The Broncos were without starting right tackle Donald Stephenson. Given Stephenson’s abysmal play in 2016, the pre-game announcement of his absence didn’t initially appear substantial until Beasley roasted his backup Ty Sambrailo for three sacks before being pulled. He then tallied another against starting right guard Michael Schofield who, attempting to stem the tide, volunteered to play out of position, shifting to right tackle.
  • Two weeks later, Beasley speed-rushed San Diego’s Joe Barksdale on a 3rd-and-18 for another “HQ”. Barksdale was Pro Football Focus’ 58th ranked tackle in 2016, grouping him among the worst starters in football at the position.
  • Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Say it five times fast. You can’t. Vaitai is Lane Johnson’s backup in Philadelphia, and filled in during Johnson’s lengthy 2016 suspension. In their week-10 contest, Beasley bull-rushed Vatai and stripped rookie QB Carson Wentz, who is included as a factor in the CSP breakdown of the sack and labeled as “QB pocket presence”. It was Beasley’s fourth “HQ” sack of the season.
  • In a week 14 bout with the L.A. Rams, Beasley was a menace for the league’s second-worst offensive line in terms of sacks allowed in 2016. The game was practically over from the opening kickoff (the Rams hilariously lost a fumble on their own one yard line), allowing Beasley to pin his ears back and terrorize Jared Goff as the rest of the Rams offense displayed their Walking Dead impressions. Beasley first beat definition-of-average right tackle Rob Havenstein twice. Then, as described by Ledyard, “Twist/Rip Move”-ed center Tim Barnes for his third “HQ” of the game.

All told, Beasley’s “high quality” sacks came against two back up right tackles, a guard playing out of position, one of the league’s worst starting right tackles, and two L.A. Rams. In the 12 games that Beasley failed to earn an “HQ” sack, the average PFF grade of the right tackles he faced was 71.5. The average grade of the six lineme n he managed to take advantage of? 51.3.

New England right tackle Marcus Cannon’s 2016 grade? 88.1. Cannon also hasn’t allowed a sack since the opening game of the season.

On a separate but important note, Beasley’s play against the run this season can not be sugarcoated. He was horrendous (along with the rest of Atlanta’s defensive personnel). PFF ranked him 82nd among all NFL edge defenders in the category. Assuming his effort in this area of deficient wasn’t a factor, one must assume his lack of size on the edge (246 lbs according to NFL.com) is to blame.

It’s becoming clearer why Beasley, with an overall PFF grade of 78.3, is ranked in a tie for 39th at the edge defender position.

Regardless of what kind of season Vic Beasley has or hasn’t had, his performance on Sunday against the greatest postseason quarterback in history will need to be the best of his career. Atlanta’s Super Bowl hopes depend on it.

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @b7phillips