FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Falcons finished Wednesday’s sticky, steamy, padded practice at noon. Thirty minutes later, Dan Quinn was upstairs in his office, energetically clicking through training camp film as if he hadn’t been standing under the hot Georgia sun for the last two hours. As he pointed out some of the team’s new additions on film, it was clear that “Fast & Physical” is more than just a mantra printed on the back of the Falcons’ T-shirts.
“What I can tell you,” Quinn says, “is that the plan of adding speed to the team was one that was very intentional.”
The second-year head coach has learned that putting his imprint on the Falcons is a multi-year process. The priority in Quinn’s first season, he says, was establishing culture inside the building and the locker room. “That was easier to bring to life,” Quinn says. In year two, the focus has been on working with GM Thomas Dimitroff on reshaping the roster in a vision that became clearer after their first year working together.
“It took me a while to find out what guys can and can’t do,” Quinn says of his first season. “I wanted to make sure, what are the unique things the players have on this team, and how can we best feature them? Then we went into this offseason, and we definitely had to make some moves. We said, how can we get faster on defense? We wanted to add pass rush, speed at linebacker and more speed at safety.”
Three of the Falcons’ first draft picks were used on defense, and these are the players Quinn highlighted on a reel of camp cut-ups: safety Keanu Neal (first round), linebacker Deion Jones (second round) and outside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell (fourth round). Neal had a reputation as a big hitter at Florida, but Quinn is also pointing out how he beelines for a receiver as soon as the ball is thrown so that the collision takes place right at the catch. On another play, Jones and Campbell converge on a ballcarrier swiftly from different angles.
It’s a bit unfair to compare Falcons players to the Seahawks stalwarts who personify the defensive system Quinn brought with him from Seattle to Atlanta, but that’s the best way to describe the blueprint for their roles. Neal will be deployed like Kam Chancellor. Derrick Shelby, the former Dolphins defensive lineman they signed in free agency, will play a Michael Bennett-type role. This offseason, Quinn also moved around some of the pieces he already had: Vic Beasley switched from the “Leo” pass-rushing spot to strongside linebacker, and Adrian Clayborn will be used mostly at end because he was more effective outside last season. Dwight Freeney, the 36-year-old free agent expected to arrive in Atlanta to sign a contract Thursday, will be called on as a situational pass rusher to boost a unit that ranked last in the league in sacks last season.
In June, after minicamp, Quinn went on a USO tour to Guam and Hawaii with some of his players and his laptop in tow. He re-watched all the games from the Falcons’ 2015 campaign (in which they started 6-1 but finished at 8-8), cataloguing how many more combinations he can make with the puzzle pieces on defense than he could last year.
“I was just trying to look for every way to say, ‘How can we do it better?’” Quinn says. “I went through all the games again, and said, OK, as a refresher, why did we miss the tackles? Why we were not able to match up who we wanted to match up against? It made me think about the team now, and how we would we do it differently now that we can deploy a different group in some spots.”
In the three-deep scheme that Quinn runs, speed is a central component because the effectiveness of a zone defense depends on players’ ability to break and close on opposing players. And speed without physicality, Quinn says, “is not an option.” A player like Neal, for example, is fast and physical enough to be used in a number of different spots in the flat and in the middle of the field, covering running backs, receivers or tight ends.
The Falcons don’t just have a vision for the kind of players they want on their team, they’re quantifying these attributes with a grading system. Every player, whether it is a draft prospect, a potential free agent or a current Falcon, receives what they call “C and T” grades, for competitiveness and toughness. The highest competitiveness grade, for example, is a 9, but Quinn says that’s rarely handed out. These grades can help them determine whether or not to acquire a player, but will also be used with current players, to help evaluate their performance in practices or games.
“I think toughness is a talent,” Quinn says. “When you are evaluating players, that better be part of our game. We are going to live that life of toughness. That has to be the mentality and attitude we play with, and if it’s not there, it would be harder to connect with the style we want to play. It’s been very much in the front of my mind.”
The Seahawks defense wasn’t built in a year, and neither was Atlanta’s. But Quinn is enthused about this next phase of construction.
Five Things I Thought About The Falcons
1. They practice through the whistle. Wednesday’s practice wasn’t “live”, meaning the players weren’t given the green light to tackle to the ground, but there were a fair share of plays on which defensive players pushed that limit. That fits with the “toughness” Quinn is trying to build, but on the other hand, there is a fine line in camp of not wanting to punish your own teammates.
2. Raheem Morris brings a new perspective to the Falcons receiving corps. The former Bucs head coach had never been an assistant on the offensive side of the ball until Quinn moved him from defense to offense this offseason. He was firing passes to his receivers in the end zone during position drills while calling out instructions. “You’ve gotta give something at the top,” he shouted to one player who didn’t make a hard enough move to stem his route at the top.
3. With Roddy White gone, Julio Jones is taking on more of a veteran leadership role. The star receiver has never been a big rah-rah guy, but he’ll take teammates aside for one-on-one instruction on little details, such as how QB Matt Ryan likes a particular route run.
4. Muhammad Ali has a presence here. Hanging in Quinn’s office is a poster from a 1979 fight at the Providence Civic Center, one of Ali’s last ring appearances. “Honestly, I love some of the messages he sends,” Quinn says. “One of my favorites is, I only start counting sit-ups when it starts hurting. What a great line. Isn’t that the truth? Across generations, from a social standpoint, he was a factor for the world. He was one of the most popular people in the world, not just in our country, and I just thought that was a really unique guy. I like people who have a unique background. That’s why I like Ali, and that’s why I like Marshawn Lynch like I did. He was a really unique guy who his teammates loved, and I connect with people like that.”
5. Thanks to the Falcons for letting The MMQB broadcast on Facebook Live for most of our visit to Flowery Branch. Training camps are great for getting an up-close look at how a team is coalescing, so we appreciate the Falcons being willing to open those same doors to our readers out on the practice field and in some of our interviews. If you came during the sliver of time during which we were zoomed in on the grass, well, we hope you checked back later.
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