ATLANTA (AP) – With sweat pouring off his brow after a 90-minute minicamp practice, Calais Campbell is the face of a new swagger emulating from the Atlanta Falcons’ defense.
He doesn’t hold back when asked what he expects this season.
“I feel like we’re built for dominance,” Campbell said.
A strange word, indeed, around these parts.
The Falcons have struggled for years to stop opposing offenses, but they’re hoping an offseason spending spree will produce a more fearsome unit.
Atlanta doled out upwards of $140 million in free agency to bring in Campbell at defensive end, along with safety Jessie Bates III, defensive tackle David Onyemata, outside linebackers Kaden Elliss and Bud Dupree, and cornerback Mike Hughes. The Falcons also re-signed linebacker Lorenzo Carter and traded for cornerback Jeff Okudah, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 draft.
In all, there could be six new starters on the defensive side.
Grady Jarrett, who has been one of the team’s few bright spots, looks forward to having a lot more help this season.
“There’s so much work to be done. We still haven’t played a game together yet,” he said. ”But I’m excited for what’s to come.”
During a run of five straight losing seasons, it’s not very difficult to pinpoint the biggest issue for the Falcons. Atlanta has consistently been in the bottom half of the league in every major defensive category, including 27th in yards surrendered and 23rd in points allowed a year ago.
In particular, the Falcons have struggled to get any pressure on the quarterback, managing just 39 sacks over the past two seasons. No other team in the NFL totaled fewer than 62 over that same span.
Campbell, who is approaching his 37th birthday, knows his best days are behind him. But he does have 99 career sacks, including 5 1/2 last season for the Baltimore Ravens.
The Falcons had 21 sacks a year ago, led by Jarrett with six.
“That’s what I do,” Campbell said. “I mean, 99 sacks is something I take a lot of pride in. My goal is to go out there and get as many as I can. I feel like this system is built for us to go out there and dominate.”
Campbell expects the Falcons to be coming at quarterbacks from everywhere on the field. The projected front seven combined for 31 1/2 sacks last season.
“What makes it special is we have a lot of guys that can rush the passer in different ways,” Campbell said. “We already see the conversation (with our defensive backs): Play tighter, give us that extra split-second, and I promise we will deliver.”
Expect a more aggressive approach from the former New Orleans Saints assistant, led by feisty newcomers such as Bates and Dupree.
Head coach Arthur Smith chooses his words carefully when talking about Dupree’s nasty side.
“Bud’s a physical football player. I kind of like that. He’ll set an edge,” Smith said. “I coached against Bud and saw some of the things he brings to the table. Bud’s a tone-setter. That’s putting it nicely.”
Desmond Ridder, who heads into his first full season as the Falcons’ starting quarterback, knows his development depends in part on how well the team plays defensively.
He’ll certainly have more room for error if Atlanta is getting a stop every now and then.
“For an offense to be successful, it obviously needs a good defense and good special teams,” Ridder said. “When you’re sitting there on the bench, you want to see those other teams struggling. I think our defense is going to do a great job of that.”
Bates was the Falcons’ most notable free agent signee, a guy who developed into one of the league’s top safeties during five seasons with Cincinnati. He was part of a remarkable turnaround by the Bengals, who won only 12 games over his first three campaigns but reached the Super Bowl in Year 4.
Bates sees the same sort of potential in Atlanta, which hasn’t had a winning record since 2017.
“It kind of reminds me a lot of what we had in Cincinnati,” Bates said. “There’s a lot to prove.”