Dan Quinn got the inspiration from an NFL Films clip: Buccaneers safety John Lynch, who was mic’d up during Super Bowl XXXVII against the Raiders, paces back towards his pre-snap position and yells across the field to fellow safety Dexter Jackson, “Dexter! Hey! Sluggo seam!” In the next shot, Jackson flies across the field and intercepts a Rich Gannon pass down the seam on the way to a Super Bowl MVP nod and a Tampa Bay victory.
In 2016, when Lynch was a television broadcaster with FOX and Quinn a first-year head coach with the Falcons, Quinn asked Lynch to speak with select members of his defense about the importance of pre-snap communication and relaying any pertinent observations about the offense at all times. That message sunk in for then-rookie safety Keanu Neal and second-year safety Falcons Ricardo Allen as they became Atlanta’s most vocal defensive players.
But when Neal tore his ACL in the 2018 season opener and Allen tore his Achilles’ tendon two games later, the Falcons defense lost its voice—and what followed was a precipitous drop from ninth in yards allowed in 2017 to 28th by the end of last season. Quinn had to find a way to make his defense talk. He thought of Lynch and that NFL Films clip. What if we mic up our own guys, not for publication on the team website, but for study purposes?
“We’ve got all this cool technology and we're trying to find ways to use it,” Quinn says. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Lets take a shot.”
He got the digital department on board to help set up the microphones (and to make sure it was clear that this was not for the website) and personally asked guys like linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and cornerback Damontae Kazee to wear microphones during practice. And it really was an ask, not a job requirement, because how many people would be thrilled to wear a microphone for an entire workday? Said Quinn: “Guys say, ‘I’ll do it for the team, but I don’t want it for the website.’ They don’t want it out in the public but they’ll do it for their guys.”
Last season Quinn began showing five minutes cut-ups during defensive meetings consisting entirely of pre-snap communication and the aftermath. Why did you say this? What impact did it have on the play? How would you respond to the other end of this communication? “Or, why the silence?” Quinn says. “Nothing to say here?”
“I just feel like the best teams I’ve been a part of, it wasn’t just one person directing traffic,” Quinn says. “Even in man coverage, you have your assignment, but there are still calls you have to make. It’s not natural to talk on the field, but you have to share information.”
Quinn mic’d a player up in a game for the first time last weekend when rookie fourth-round defensive end John Cominsky submitted to the scrutiny during his NFL debut in Miami. His session will air to a private audience or about 40 of his teammates this week.
“This is the first time I've ever heard of this,” Ricardo Allen told The MMQB this week. “He’s always pushed [communication] but I’ve never seen anybody actually record it [during practice] and break it down before Coach.”
Allen says he could rely on four or five teammates talking during pre-snap including himself before he tore his Achilles. In practice this preseason, that number has jumped to nine, including the often silent cornerbacks and defensive linemen.
“The defensive linemen often feel like ‘If I can beat the guy in front of me, I’m good,’ and the corner feels like, ‘I’m on an island,’” Allen says. “But now people are thinking about how they can help their brother.
“Just because we see a certain thing doesn’t mean you’re always going to be right. Maybe we call out their best play from a certain formation, and they call something different. Well, you go back to your technique and your job. The majority of the time you wont be right, but if you’re right six times out of 80, and you can make a pick or force a fumble, that stuff adds up. You only need to be right a couple times. You only need to be plus-1 or plus-2 in turnovers to give yourself a 75-80% chance of winning the game.”
Quinn sees the defense-wide jump in communication as a silver lining in the Allen and Neal injuries (to be fair, Quinn sees the silver lining in most things). He’ll continue to record players throughout the season, focusing his attention on younger guys who have room to improve. After all, some of the veterans are a harder sell.
“I don’t like being mic’d up,” Allen says. “They’ve asked me a couple times. I don’t know. I’m weird about it. I’m just working. I can’t think about everything I’m saying and whether it’s appropriate. It’s too much.”
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