Enter Ray Edwards.
The Falcons’ welcomed their new defensive end to training camp Saturday and can’t wait to get him out on the field alongside John Abraham, who essentially had to go it alone last season when it came to rushing the passer.
Atlanta ranked 20th in the league with 31 sacks — and Abraham had 13 of those. The other end, Kroy Biermann, managed only three.
Edwards should be a major upgrade, totaling 16.5 sacks the last two years with the Minnesota Vikings. He agreed to a five-year, $30-million contract with the Falcons that includes a guarantee of $11 million.
“I think me and Abraham are definitely going to be a great tandem,” Edwards said after watching an afternoon practice from the sideline, decked out in a new red-and-black Falcons cap. “We’ll work on playing off each other and causing a lot of havoc.”
The Falcons could’ve used Edwards back in January. After winning the NFC South and going into the playoffs with home-field advantage, they were routed 48-21 by Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, the eventual Super Bowl champions.
Rodgers threw for 366 yards and continually spun away from Biermann and anyone else trying to get a hand on him. The Packers didn’t have to punt the entire game, picking apart a defense that had largely managed to hide its biggest deficiency during a 13-3 regular season.
“We missed a lot of sacks in that game,” safety William Moore said. “Bringing a guy like Edwards in, that’s what he does. He’s a great addition to this team.”
While one player can’t do it all, Edwards’ impact should trickle down to the rest of the defense, making everyone a little better.
He’ll certainly be welcomed by the guys in the secondary, who shouldn’t have to cover opposing receivers quite as long with Edwards and Abraham bearing down on the quarterback.
“We needed some help. We needed to help Abe out,” said Roddy White, the Falcons’ top receiver. “We’ve got to rush the quarterback, keep those guys in the pocket, get some sacks. It’s a lot easier to cover people for two seconds rather than three or four seconds.”
All eyes will be on Atlanta’s defense, which is seen as the weaker link next to an offense loaded with weapons.
The Falcons bolstered the offense even more by trading up to draft receiver Julio Jones, who joins a unit that already included White, quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner and tight end Tony Gonzalez.
But Mike Smith thinks this might be the best defense he’s had in four seasons as Atlanta’s coach. Edwards joins a group that should have back every starter from last season, including up-and-comers Curtis Lofton, Sean Weatherspoon and Brent Grimes.
“I think it’s very strong,” Smith said. “You’ve got to go play the games, of course, but I’m very pleased with the way this is coming together for us. When we first got here, we said it was a process. It’s always a process. You’re never going to have the perfect roster, but you’re always striving for that.”
White is convinced the defense will carry its share of the load in 2011.
“We’re going to get a lot more sacks, which means we’re getting a lot more pressure, which means we’re getting a lot more interceptions,” the star receiver said.
The 26-year-old Edwards was a fourth-round pick by the Vikings in 2006 and ran into problems the following year, violating the league’s steroid policy. He received a four-game suspension and admitted taking a workout supplement without checking to see if it was on the banned list.
Bouncing back from that mistake, Edwards had a breakout year in 2009 with 8.5 sacks as the Vikings made the playoffs.
Now, he’s ready for a new start with a once-downtrodden franchise that has put together three straight winning seasons and two playoff appearances. Both trips to the postseason were one-and-done, leaving the Falcons with a very clear goal: Super Bowl or bust.
Playing in the NFC North, Edwards got to face Rodgers twice a season. He had no trouble remembering how many times he’s sacked the Super Bowl MVP (twice last year, six times in his career) and looks forward to facing him again on Oct. 9, when the Packers visit the Georgia Dome.
“I’m definitely coming to a great team,” Edwards said. “I feel like I’m the missing piece.”
NOTES: Restricted free agent Eric Weems, the Falcons’ Pro Bowl return specialist, agreed to his second-round tender and showed up in camp Saturday. Free-agent signees are not allowed to practice until Thursday under the new labor agreement. ... Turner underwent groin surgery during the offseason, but Smith described it as a “very minor procedure” that should have no impact on the running back in camp. “He’s been full speed for a number of weeks,” the coach said. ... The Falcons moved their practice indoors because of a thunderstorm threat, sending home hundreds of disappointed fans. But after the storm threat passed, the team was able to go back outdoors for the final 90 minutes. “Obviously, I’m not a very good weatherman,” Smith said. “I apologize to all the fans who came out.” ... The Falcons are still in talks with OG Justin Blalock. Smith said he hopes a deal can be reached so the team won’t have to break in two new starters at guard. Harvey Dahl signed with St. Louis on Friday.