New coach Dan Quinn inherits an Atlanta team that put up double-digit loss totals for two straight seasons. Putting together a winner starts on defense, where the ex-Seahawks coordinator will put a Seattle stamp on the unit. Just don't expect success and Super Bowls to happen overnight
Dan Quinn needs to hope Falcons owner Arthur Blank is a patient, understanding man. The first-time head coach could have a tough go of it in Year One with the Falcons. A high-powered passing offense might keep his team in a lot of contests, but Quinn was hired for his defensive pedigree. That side of the ball will determine how soon the Falcons return to being NFC South contenders after a combined 22 losses in 2013-14.
Shoddy defensive play is what cost Mike Smith and his staff their jobs last year, opening the door for the 44-year-old Quinn. Smith and his defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan, used a litany of different defensive concepts; no one knew what to expect of their group from week to week. Well, actually, there was one thing to expect: no pass rush. This was the motivation for Nolan’s frequent, at times maybe even desperate, schematic gyrations. It didn’t help that the Falcons secondary was hit by injuries and average to begin with, or that their linebacking corps was subpar and inexperienced.
With Quinn, you do know what you’re getting week to week: a Seahawks style approach. In the broadest terms, this means a hybrid 4-3 featuring a variety of different four-man fronts, wide-reaching responsibilities for the linebackers, man-press concepts by the outside corners and cohesive zone coverage from back-level defenders inside.
It’s a straightforward scheme, easy to gameplan against but difficult to out-execute. Or at least, that’s how it was in Seattle, when Quinn had a roster featuring five different players who were among the three best league-wide at their respective positions (free safety Earl Thomas; strong safety Kam Chancellor; middle linebacker Bobby Wagner; cornerback Richard Sherman; and nickel defensive tackle Michael Bennett). And many of the other six defenders on the field were often dominant in their own right, thanks in part to playing styles that perfectly answered the scheme’s demands.
Along with head coaching responsibilities, Quinn also takes over roster responsibilities, as technically he has final personnel say over eighth-year GM Thomas Dimitroff. The two work closely together, though, and were able this past offseason to bring in a handful of new defensive players: first-round rookie pass rusher Vic Beasley and second-round rookie corner Jalen Collins via the draft, as well as defensive end Adrian Clayborn and strongside linebacker Brooks Reed in free agency. That makes for at least four new first unit players in Week 1.
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Having new players doesn’t necessarily mean having the right players. With the scheme being a puzzle contingent on pieces working together, the best way to understand what lies ahead for Atlanta is to break this defense down section by section.
There’s a belief amongst hardcore football nerds that Quinn’s system is very complex along the defensive line. But most of what he does is not unusual. Like every defensive caller, Quinn employs a variety of different fronts, based on the situation. What leads the nerds to believe there’s complexity is that in many of the base front concepts, Quinn uses a two-gap approach from the nose shade position and strong side defensive end, and plays a one-gap approach at three-technique and weak side defensive end. Indeed, this mixture of assignments can put a mental burden on D-linemen and the linebackers reading the action. But, as shown in Seattle, the burden quickly lifts into simplification if you have the right personnel.
In this realm, the Falcons actually indeed might have the right personnel. It will depend on how Clayborn performs. He’ll be asked to play the strongside edg—like Red Bryant did in Seattle. Clayborn, 280 pounds, weighs about 40-50 pounds less than Bryant, and injuries sidelined him for almost all of 2014 and, before that, 2012. But if healthy, Clayborn can play beyond his expected physical strength by knowing how to operate laterally and with leverage. He’s good at working his way off blocks.
If Clayborn doesn’t pan out, the likely next strongside defensive end candidate would be Tyson Jackson, a former 3-4 defensive end. And, a suggestion for a dark horse candidate: Ra’Shede Hageman. The second-round pick of a year ago is built like a lankier Bryant and flashes stunning initial quickness. Hageman’s more natural position, however, is defensive tackle. His quickness could work there at the three-technique, but his size and strength are favorable for taking on double-teams as the nose shade (aka the one-tech). It ultimately may come down to what the Falcons see from veterans Jonathan Babineaux (a three-tech) and Paul Soliai (one-tech). Both are on the wrong side of 30 and showed signs of decline last season. But they were often working in unfamiliar 3-4 concepts. Now back in a 4-3, either could rebound. And it must be noted that Hageman, while talented, is immature and raw.
The objective with the weak side defensive end—the “Leo,” as the nerds like to remind everyone—is to give him space so he can run and chase, as well as work in one-on-one pass rushing scenarios. The importance of this role was verified by Beasley’s selection at eighth overall. The hope is he’ll capture the job ahead of former Seahawks backup O’Brien Schofield (who fits the scheme but is less gifted) and ahead of Kroy Biermann (who is versatile but doesn’t fit the scheme).
The Falcons could have a budding young line featuring Hageman and Beasley. Or, they could have an aging, declining unit featuring an assortment of 30-year-olds. Most likely, it will fall somewhere in between.
An important component of Quinn’s system is a middle man who can go sideline to sideline. (Keeping the Mike ‘backer clean for this is one of the reasons some of the defensive linemen play two gaps.) Paul Worrilow is no Bobby Wagner, but he played increasingly faster as his second NFL season progressed last year. Worrilow weighs 230, 10 pounds lighter than Wagner, and it shows when blockers get contact on him. He’s also not quite as adept in pass coverage.
Which brings us to Brooks Reed. He’s playing the role of Seattle's K.J. Wright, an extremely dimensional three-down player who could often be asked to cover tight ends in space. Reed is versatile, but in a different way. A 5-2 outside linebacker under Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips early in his career, he transitioned to stacked linebacker in Romeo Crennel’s 3-4 for some of last season, where he was sturdy but not sensational. He’s never played linebacker in a 4-3, where he’ll more often find himself in space. The only other option here is Joplo Bartu, a fleet athlete but unreliable decision-maker.
Assuming Beasley and Clayborn can provide at least a modicum of pass-rushing pressure, this area of the defense becomes most critical to Atlanta’s success in 2015. Let’s get the hard part out of the way: there’s no Earl Thomas. Or anyone close, for that matter. Charles Godfrey does not have Thomas’s range and awareness in centerfield. That will mean less freedom for strong safety William Moore, a fierce hitter like Kam Chancellor but not as heady of a read-and-react pass defender.
Then there’s the question of who plays outside. Desmond Trufant is not as lanky as a Sherman or a Byron Maxwell, but at 6-0 he’s not small, and with his short area change-of-direction dexterity he’s dangerous to throw against in off-coverage. Trufant can also man up in the slot, which may ultimately be his greatest area of impact, depending on how the Falcons’ other young corners do. Headlining this category is the long-armed second-rounder Collins (6-1, 203) and last year’s third-rounder, Dezmen Southward (6-0, 211). Both are inexperienced. Collins made only 10 starts at LSU; Southward, in his second year, is converting from safety.
The only other experienced corners on the roster are journeyman Phillip Adams and third-year man Robert Alford. Adams becomes more of a liability the more he’s asked to play. Alford had a miserable start to last season but regained his footing around late October before going down with a broken wrist in Week 11. The 5-10 Alford’s problems come when perimeter receivers get a step on him and use their size advantage. Those weaknesses would only get magnified in Quinn’s bump-and-run scheme.
The imminent dead ends on this defense are outnumbered by simple question marks, which is encouraging but still a harbinger of growing pains. It’s important to remember, however, that Quinn did not have only former first-and second-round players in Seattle. Several low-round guys, and even some undrafted youngsters, blossomed under him. That’s an indication of good day-to-day coaching. And isn’t good day-to-day coaching really what Quinn was brought here to provide?
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1. It’s rare to see an offensive coordinator get hired before a head coach. That’s how it went with Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta this past January. But you can’t blame the Falcons for pouncing on the 35-year-old son of Mike. (Besides, most likely, once Rex Ryan went to Buffalo, the Falcons knew they’d hire Quinn once Seattle’s playoff run ended. And they probably learned somewhere along the grapevine that Quinn would want Shanahan as his OC.) Shanahan is a good hire if for no other reason than he will install a fresh zone rushing attack. That may not be ideal given this team’s lack of mobility at guard and right tackle, but after seeing the Falcons ground game finish 24th, 32nd and 29th over the past three years, any change is good at this point.
2. A defining characteristic of Shanahan’s system: play-action concepts that put the quarterback on the move. That wouldn’t be considered a great fit for a classic pocket passer like Matt Ryan, but in 2014 Ryan worked diligently on this aspect of his game and became one of the league’s better on-the-move operators. Expect Shanahan to use Ryan this way, though not as often as he did with Brian Hoyer last year in Cleveland or Robert Griffin in Washington before that. Ryan, after all, also remains an elite dropback anticipation passer.
3. It’s vital that left tackle Jake Matthews improve against bull rushers. Matthews shows the dexterity you’d expect from a No. 6 overall pick, but if he can’t single-handedly block edge rushers in Year Two, Atlanta’s dropback aerial attack will again fail to fully capitalize on the rare talents of wideout Julio Jones. Matthews is the key player because it’s already a given that protection slides and chip-blocks will have to regularly go to right tackle Ryan Schraeder.
4. The pressure is on Jones. For the first time in his career, he won’t face defenses that also must consider giving special attention to Roddy White. At 33 (34 in November), White no longer recovers well from minor injuries, and his quickness in and out of breaks has diminished. It shows in a lot of his route running.
5. Punters and kickers beware: Devin Hester, at 32, is still lethal.
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