Atlanta was handed their first loss of the season by New Orleans in disappointing fashion. The Falcons played an extremely sloppy game fumbling five times (and losing three), and had a punt blocked for a touchdown. It's tough to win any game with these mistakes, let alone a road Thursday night game against an archrival.
Since the loss, a lot of people have questioned the defensive scheme and whether or not Dan Quinn can be successful long term running a majority Cover 3 defense.
The defense has made immense strides from last season. The pass defense, in terms of yards per attempt, has improved from 32nd (8.2) in 2014 to 11th (7.2) this year. The run defense, in terms of yards per carry, has seen a jump as well ranking 4th (3.6) in the league after 16th (4.2) last year.
Quinn's scheme isn't the problem at all with the Falcons defense. The fact that Atlanta boasts a top ten defense this year with minimal pass rush is a major success in and of itself. They certainly didn't have their best game on Thursday against the Saints, but it was due more to great play calling by Sean Payton, plus some personnel issues on defense right now.
Let's take a closer look.
Four Verticals versus Cover 3
Against teams that run a lot of Cover 3 (like the Falcons) a concept that opposing offenses will typically try to use is four verticals with the running back cutting across the field to the trips side.
What this does is create two areas of stress on the defense that allows the offense to flood the deep portion of the field with four receivers, attacking three defenders playing deep. The key to the play having success is forcing the strong safety, William Moore, to stay committed to his zone by threatening the area with the running back sprinting across the field. This puts the free safety, Ricardo Allen, in an unfavorable position where he has to guard two receivers: The slot receiver running a streak right towards him and the tight end bending his streak across the middle of the field.
Allen really can't be "right" in this situation. If he picks one route, the other is open. Even though Ben Watson dropped the ball on this play, it's a great play call by Sean Payton to create leverage against Allen with a classic Cover 3 beater.
Undisciplined Linebacker Play
The big pass play to Willie Snead early in the first quarter that set up Mark Ingram's touchdown run was mainly due to the lack of experience with Nate Stupar. Stupar has mainly been playing strongside linebacker, but with Justin Durant out the Falcons had to try him at weakside linebacker. Drew Brees exploited this matchup a few times in the game.
On the left side of the field the Saints ran a screen with C.J. Spiller (bottom of the screen) and a curl with Willie Snead playing in the slot. Atlanta came out in their patented Cover 3, which is perfectly suited to stop the Saints passing concept. The screen was covered by the flat defender and in theory the middle hook defender (Stupar) should've been sitting on Snead's route for an easy coverage assignment.
Brees hit a pump fake on his first read which was Benjamin Watson running a short curl in the middle of the field. Stupar shot of out of cannon towards Brees' throwing motion leaving Snead wide open sitting on the hash. To make matters worse, Robert Alford missed his initial tackle attempt before Snead was tackled short of the goal line.
Watch the play here:
Through more practice and game reps, is a play that the Falcons defense will be better equipped to stop. The Cover 3 alignments were perfect to stop this play, but undisciplined coverage duties caused the route to break free for a long gain. On the bright side Stupar quickly realized his mistake and hustled down the field to make the tackle.
Option Routes Limiting Aggressive Defense
The current New Orleans offense is a "cousin" of the Air Raid offenses that took college football by storm in the 1990s. One of the main concepts in these passing attacks is the implementation of option routes. Simply put, there are plays where the receiver reads the defense on the fly and runs a specific route based on coverage he sees.
There's no way to know exactly which routes the receiver could have ran, but he quickly settles into the area that Nate Stupar leaves open when he blitzes the quarterback. Atlanta was playing three deep, which means the underneath defenders were really stressed to cover the width of the field. Option routes are great ways to counteract zone blitz calls. Watch the play unfold below. With Stupar rushing the passer, a two on one situation is created on Desmond Trufant.
Issues In Man Coverage
The Falcons biggest issue on defense right now is the lack of speed in the middle of the field. Between Paul Worrilow, backup linebackers, and William Moore, long crossing routes across the field really put a burden on this defense. Again, the defensive playcalls here weren't poor, but the execution wasn't great.
On the play above, the Falcons are running (surprise!) Cover 3. With no potential threat to his zone, Paul Worrilow matches with Ben Watson across the field. The technique and play recognition here was correct, Worrilow just doesn't quite have the speed to keep up with Watson.
Here's another example of the Falcons lacking speed in the middle of the defense.
The Falcons are in Cover 1 with a six man rush and have enough defenders to matchup evenly with the Saints route combinations. Again, this is just a situation where the Falcons got burnt across the field.
William Moore is in great position to have sound coverage from the start of the play. As Watson bends his route inside, Moore already has his hips in a position to explode off the thirty yard line and chase the tight end. However, Moore just doesn't have the burst and acceleration that he once possessed, and gets torched across the field by the 34 year old Watson.
In the offseason, the Falcons are going to have to find athletic upgrades in the middle of the defense to maximize the potential of the unit.
Looking back on the Saints game, the Falcons have a much bigger issue with personnel than scheme at this point. The scheme has already allowed this defense to improve from one of the worst units in the league, to one of the best. Sean Payton called a great game and Atlanta played by far their sloppiest game of the season.
It's important not to have knee-jerk reactions to the first loss of the season. The team is still 5-1 and has a great chance to win 12-14 games. This isn't a perfect team, but the arrow is most certainly pointing up.