If you spend any amount of time around Dan Quinn, you’ll notice that there are several words he consistently uses to describe the type of play he wants to see from the defense. It’s not just “fast and physical,” but also “toughness and grit.”
These are cliches, but you see the words translated to action with players like Grady Jarrett, who managed to sack Tom Brady three times in Super Bowl LI. You see it in the speed of middle linebacker Deion Jones, who returned two interceptions for touchdowns last year. And you see it in the dramatic improvement of Vic Beasley, who led the league in sacks last season.
The year before Quinn arrived, the Atlanta Falcons’ defense finished the 2014 season ranked dead last in the league for total defense. The hope was that Quinn could shape the unit into something like the top-ranked Seattle Seahawks defense that he was leaving to come to Atlanta.
The Falcons defense keeps getting better
In 2015, Quinn’s first season at the helm, the Falcons improved from 32nd in the league for yards allowed per game to 16th.
But those players didn’t fit what Quinn was trying to build. That defensive scheme is essentially a 4-3 defense, but with one defensive end, known as a LEO, who typically comes off the snap standing up instead of having a hand on the ground. It also employs a lot of cover 3 zone, which requires not just quality secondary play, but relies on linebackers who can pick up the slack, too.
Atlanta had two good cornerbacks in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, but it was lacking hard-hitting safeties like Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Also missing was someone who could fill the LEO role, and the speed Quinn covets on that side of the ball wasn’t really on the roster.
When you look at Atlanta’s traditional stats from last season, they’re not overly impressive. The Falcons finished the year ranked 25th in the league for yards per game, and 27th in the league for scoring.
But if you break it down game by game, you see improvement after the team’s bye in Week 11. The 361.3 yards per game they averaged over those six weeks was only slightly better than the 371.2 yards per game they allowed the rest of the season. The biggest improvement was that Atlanta averaged 20.5 points allowed per game down that stretch, compared with 25.4 per game over the whole year.
More importantly, the defense now fits Quinn’s ideal.
You see the speed everywhere on the roster, but most notably in the defensive players the team has brought in under Quinn.
Charles McDonald of The Falcoholic notes that the two traits the Falcons prioritize when scouting defensive players are their performance in the broad jump and the three-cone drill.
The three-cone drill provides a baseline expectation for a player’s change-of-direction skills, and the broad jump measures the potential for explosive play. All of the defensive players the Falcons have drafted in Dan Quinn’s first three seasons as head coach hit at least the 70th percentile in one or both drills, with the exception of De’Vondre Campbell.
Deion Jones exemplifies that speed. He used it to turn two of his three picks last season into scores.
That speed sets Jones, and the rest of his unit, apart.
“Deion, I don’t know if there’s a faster linebacker in the NFL,” linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “De’Vondre is not far behind, and then to add Duke. And Josh Keyes has speed. LaRoy Reynolds has speed. I mean, everybody — Jermaine Grace has speed. I’d put our group against about anybody when it comes to that.”
They added to that speed this offseason, bringing in Takkarist McKinley and Duke Riley in the draft. McKinley ran a blazing-fast 4.59 40-yard dash for a 6’2, 250-pound man. Riley, who is projected to take over the starting weakside linebacker role, was a top performer at the combine in the 40-yard dash with a 4.58, as well as the three-cone drill with a 6.89-second performance.
McKinley should help with the Falcons’ pass rush, building on what Vic Beasley did last season. Riley is already penciled in as the starting weakside linebacker.
Pressuring opposing quarterbacks is a priority in Atlanta, and it’s an area in which the team took a big step forward last season.
They went from 22 sacks in Mike Smith’s final season, to 19 and dead last in the league in 2015. Last year, they turned it around with 34, which placed them 16th in the NFL. Beasley had help last year from veterans like Adrian Clayborn and Courtney Upshaw, but McKinley’s speed could be devastating when coupled with Beasley’s.
It’s not just the young guys. The Falcons added Dontari Poe, a remarkably athletic defensive tackle who’s also 6’3 and 346 pounds. Just watch him score a receiving touchdown for the Kansas City Chiefs last season. Oh, and Poe had a passing touchdown for Kansas City, too.
The Falcons also brought in Jack Crawford, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, to replace Tyson Jackson. Crawford has the same skill set as Jackson and can play defensive end or slide over to tackle in Quinn’s scheme, but he’s got a better motor. That makes him a smarter fit for this defense.
It doesn’t stop with rushing the passer. It extends to limiting big offensive plays and creating turnovers, which is still a work in progress.
Last season, the Falcons finished with 12 interceptions, good for 18th in the league, and 17 forced fumbles, which placed them fifth. It’s an area where the coaching staff wants players get better.
They do all of this by constantly working on perfecting their fundamentals. Hand placement, sound tackling, gap discipline, and footwork are things that you might think would come naturally to players who have been immersed in this game since childhood. But the Falcons’ coaching staff believes that a constant focus on refining those basic elements of football will help this unit get to where they want it to be.
“If we improve on those, and as you look at the entire part of it — fundamentals,” defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel said. “Tackles where the guy throws four yards, but they gain 35 — that’s hidden yardage that shouldn’t be there.”
Of the projected starters on defense, a majority have three seasons or fewer of experience. That includes three starters entering their second season — Keanu Neal, Campbell, and Jones, as well as nickelback Brian Poole, an undrafted free agent who played a majority of the defensive snaps last season.
Ulbrich said that experience the young players got as rookies last season is invaluable, and it’s rare.
“A lot of times, young players aren’t given that opportunity for whatever reason — the organization, coaches are scared, whatever,” Ulbrich said. “Because there were moments that were rough last year, where like I said, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. But it was really cool to see how they grew.”
As these young players get more experience, the defense will continue to get better. And while the Falcons still have work to do to build up that side of the ball, they haven’t let the offense fall by the wayside.
The offense hasn’t been neglected
The mistake Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith made when building the Falcons’ roster together was overlooking the defense to create an explosive offense.
The Falcons had the benefit of decent depth at most positions heading into this offseason. It freed them up to prioritize keeping key players who were set to hit free agency, like wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, a major contributor to Atlanta’s top-scoring offense last year, and tackle Ryan Schraeder, who has been a reliable fixture on the right side of the line.
The biggest question for the Falcons going into the season is how the departure of Kyle Shanahan will impact things. Shanahan was hired to be the San Francisco 49ers head coach after the Falcons lost the Super Bowl because he didn’t want to run the dang ball. Steve Sarkisian was hired to take his place.
Part of the reason the team went with Sarkisian to fill the offensive coordinator role is because he can orchestrate essentially the same offense Atlanta ran last season, with some tweaks. There will probably be less emphasis on the fullback and more on the tight ends, but otherwise, the scheme should remain similar to the one the Falcons experienced so much success in last season.
The other element of the culture Quinn has brought to the Falcons carries over to the locker room.
A ‘prove-it’ culture
“It doesn’t matter how they got their butts into that room,” Quinn said. “Here on a tryout, here as an undrafted free agent or a draft pick, we’re looking for great competitors and guys who want to totally buy into the team concept that’s part of our locker room, our team.”
You can already see the culture Quinn has worked to build reflected in the rookies. It hasn’t taken long for them to pick up his catchphrases.
“A lot of people don’t make it this far, and I’m just happy to be able to be here and just be a part of a brotherhood,” rookie first-rounder Takk McKinley said during rookie minicamp. “For me, being a brother, the brotherhood — you can say it all you want, but you’ve got to prove it to the guys.”
That brotherhood and the standard Quinn and the rest of the coaching staff have set are central to the team’s success, almost as much as the fast and physical play.
“It’s brotherhood,” Manuel said. “And the thing that we always talk about — if I can watch tape and I don’t see my brother straining the same way I am ... my brother, you know what, am I sacrificing my life for your life right now? I don’t know, as I look at that play. I could have probably done more.”
The Falcons got to Super Bowl LI because of the talent on the roster and the culture Quinn has built in Atlanta. They’ll lean on that culture to move past the blown 28-3 lead and the historic Super Bowl collapse to get right back into contention in 2017.