A major rebuilding process can't be completed in one year. When Dan Quinn took the head coaching job, Atlanta's defense was as terrible as their offense was in 2007. Both units had several players that shouldn't be starting in the NFL. They had one blue-chip player with Roddy White emerging as a reliable wide receiver, while the 2015 edition has Desmond Trufant solidifying his spot as a top-tier cornerback.
The Past and The Present
Thomas Dimitroff was fortunate to land Matt Ryan and Michael Turner, who thrived alongside unexpected excellent seasons from Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo. Their contributions masked the team not having a competent number two wide receiver, starting tight end, and unstable left side of the offensive line in 2008. Quinn finds himself in a similar situation, where he's looking for young players to make significant leaps and cover obvious flaws within the personnel.
Robert Alford, Jonathan Babineaux, and Adrian Clayborn have all played major roles in Atlanta's resurgence. Quinn's scheme has made Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson into valuable contributors and part of the number one-ranked run defense. That has helped mitigate the lack of a pass-rush, along with persistent coverage issues within the middle of the field.
The Saints Marched In
While they didn't use C.J Spiller very often, my preview column emphasized that Drew Brees and the Saints would attack the middle of the field. New Orleans doesn't have a wide receiver that can win one-on-one against Trufant. They sacrificed Brandon Coleman onto his side, while Willie Snead had limited success against Alford. Brandin Cooks was the main target in the slot, and aside from beating Philip Adams on a crucial third down, Cooks was fairly anonymous throughout the game. New Orleans' supporting cast has drastically declined over the past few seasons, but unfortunately Ben Watson remained.
Atlanta struggled to contain Watson throughout the game, as he maneuvered around without much resistance. Brees frequently utilized play-action to take advantage of Atlanta's overcommitted linebackers and spring Watson free downfield. If it wasn't from play action, Watson would beat Kemal Ishmael or Joplo Bartu on simple post or crossing routes. Nobody expected the 34-year-old tight end to produce a career night of ten catches and 127 yards.
In Justin Durant's absence, the coaching staff has started to use Ishmael as a linebacker on third downs. They must have figured that he would have to be an upgrade over Bartu based on his experience as a strong safety. While it was an innovative attempt by the coaching staff, the insertion of Ishmael hasn't provided any upgrade. He simply doesn't look capable of playing coverage at this level following last year's weekly coverage miscues. Watson beat him on multiple occasions with relative ease.
Reed In The Spotlight
While Atlanta looks for a solution with Durant recovering from an elbow injury, it's somewhat odd that Brooks Reed was the highest paid free agent signing and appears to be strictly a two-down linebacker. Many fans would like to see more from a player that was paid pretty handsomely in free agency. To finish off the frenzy of poor linebacker play, Paul Worrilow bit on several play-action fakes that left him hopeless against Watson as well.
With Delanie Walker coming up next week, the coaching staff will need to make adjustments immediately. Durant is hoping to practice this week according to Quinn. They will need to handle play-action fakes far better, along with the safeties making more plays in coverage. A fairly ordinary tight end like Watson shouldn't be one of the biggest reasons behind losing a very winnable game.
The other noticeable issue circulating around the defense has been the lack of variety up front. Quinn's defenses have been known for being simple rather than complex. While his defenses have been successful, he'll need to start implementing different rotations and blitz schemes. Payton seemed to be in complete control throughout the game.
Utilizing rollouts on first down against Atlanta's run-heavy alignment worked repeatedly. Jackson has been a standout against the run this season, but his limitations as a pass-rusher are well documented. The coaching staff simply can't depend on him or Kroy Biermann to chase quarterbacks down effectively on rollouts or any type of play-action pass for that matter.
Unless an opponent is looking to run the ball more than 25 times, there is no justification behind Biermann receiving more snaps than Vic Beasley. That occurred last night, as Biermann played 44 snaps to Beasley receiving just 32 snaps. Despite his undersized frame, Beasley hasn't been a complete liability against the run. Quinn has spoken publicly about his progression against the run. If that's the case, why are they utilizing him as a situational pass-rusher?
Jackson and Soliai playing 40 snaps shouldn't occur, either. These are players that excel in a restricted role. When they played extensively last season, Atlanta's run defense was mediocre at best. The two rotations of Biermann-Hageman-Soliai-Jackson and Beasley-Clayborn-Babineaux-Schofield are starting to become predictable. Offenses will gladly throw on first down knowing that their quarterback will likely be able to go through his progressions without much pressure.
When the sub-nickel defense is on the field, offenses will gladly run towards the side of Beasley and Clayborn. The coaching staff needs to diversify their rotations desperately. Schofield has looked more than capable as a run defender, and allthough his past knee issues prevent him from being an every-down player, why can't he play on earlier downs? How about Clayborn or Babineaux lining up inside on first down, while Hageman or Grady Jarrett play on third down? That will keep teams guessing, along with more opportunities to generate pressure on all three downs.
The same two rotations appear to be hindering this defense. Obviously, it's difficult to generate a pass rush with this crop of players. Only three true edge rushers are currently on the roster. Could Atlanta spring a trade to bolster their anemic pass rush? Beasley's lack of size seems to be an issue right now. Instead of using his top-level speed, he seems to be either bull rushing or utilizing a spin move far too often. While the first round pick has generated some pressure in recent games, it hasn't been sustainable enough.
Atlanta has clearly made vast improvements on both sides of the ball. This is far from the "doom-and-gloom" articles that Falcon fans were accustomed to reading between 2013-2014. New Orleans simply exposed Atlanta's weaknesses by utilizing their forgotten tight end to setting up play action on first down through taking advantage of their lack of edge rushers.
It's going to take another year for this defense to fully evolve into an above-average unit. They'll need to decide which linebacker is best for third down situations, if Durant continues to be sidelined, and a better usage of their defensive line rotations will be essential as well.
The coaching staff made necessary changes to fix a dreadful offensive line, but their next challenge will be concealing personnel flaws within their defense and utilizing different rotations along their defensive line. That should lead to more fast and physical performances and less flawed and predictable games against excellent quarterback-head coach duos like Brees and Payton.