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FLOWERY BRANCH — Peria Jerry won’t go so far as to say he’s the missing link to an improved interior pass rush in Atlanta this year.
Yet, as a former No. 24 overall draft pick, Jerry believes he hasn’t come to close to maximizing his NFL potential.
If Jerry does so this season, the Falcons’ defense would likely solve its primary concern of training camp — improve its pass rush or suffer another disappointing finish.
“I set my goals real high and I’m going to try and achieve them,” Jerry said Monday. “For the most part, I’m going to keep doing my job within the scheme, keep working and see what happens.”
Atlanta finished 13-3 last season, won the NFC South and earned a No. 1 playoff seed, but the Green Bay Packers ended the Falcons’ season by embarrassing the home team by 27 points on Jan. 15.
For the Falcons to get to the Super Bowl, however, they must improve a pass rush that faltered in two of its last three home games.
A 17-14 loss to New Orleans in Week 16 exposed weaknesses in Atlanta’s personnel and scheme as Saints quarterback Drew Brees overcame two interceptions, eight penalties and seven punts by getting sacked just once and throwing for 296 yards.
Three weeks later, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers picked the Falcons apart, completing 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns, no interceptions and shaking off a pair of sacks. His performance made up for the Packers’ narrow November loss in which his furious comeback attempt at the Georgia Dome was undermined by his goal-line fumble in the second quarter.
This time, Rodgers was more careful and more precise, making Atlanta’s defense looked nothing like the unit that ended the regular season ranked third in time of possession, fourth in interceptions, fifth in points allowed and 10th against the run.
The Falcons’ pass rush, just as it showed in the many times it whiffed on sacking Brees, couldn’t keep Rodgers from moving his feet and completing passes inside and outside the pocket.
“We know we’re a better defense than what we showed, but you’ve got to go out there and prove it,” tackle Jonathan Babineaux said. “That day, we did just the opposite.”
Since the start of training camp, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has shored up one weakness in the pass rush by signing left end Ray Edwards to a five-year contract that includes $11 million in guarantees. Edwards’ presence is designed to help free Pro Bowl right end John Abraham of double-team and chip blocks and to keep reserves Kroy Biermann and Chauncey Davis, both of whom contribute on special teams, fresher.
But as starting nose tackle Corey Peters sees it, the arrival of Edwards only puts more emphasis on the interior line to push harder.
“We’ve definitely got to improve the pass rush and myself, from the left tackle position, I have to step up and so does everybody else,” Peters said. “As far as defending the pass, everybody’s got to do a better job, and I also want to improve on my run defense. I think I did a good job at times, but I’ve got to be more consistent in that area so that I’m a guy that, when I’m out there, they know that’s taken care of.”
Peters, a third-round pick last year, beat out Jerry for a starting job, so Falcons line coach Ray Hamilton and coordinator Brian VanGorder decided to deploy Jerry primarily as a three-technique backup to Babineaux.
Coupled by his rehab and lack of experience, Jerry’s self-acknowledged difficulty in understanding opponent tendencies has held him back and kept him from unseating Babineaux, who has started 48 of his 49 games with 13.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, six passes defensed, one interception and a touchdown in three years under head coach Mike Smith.
Jerry played in every game last year, but knows he isn’t paid first-round draft pick money to be a backup.
The former Ole Miss standout, who has two career sacks and one pass defended in 17 regular-season games, wants more from himself, but likewise acknowledges that he must be patient after missing nearly four months of his rookie season while rehabbing from knee surgery.
“It’s always technique,” Jerry said. “That’s the biggest thing. You can do all those other things, but I just try to work on my step and hand placement and keep doing it so that it’s natural to me.”