Whenever a new coaching staff is assembled, many questions arise about their strategies and usage of personnel. Dan Quinn’s reputation of being a player-friendly and defensive-minded coach has generated optimism around Atlanta. During the past two seasons, it became clear that their defense was ruining the prime years of Matt Ryan’s career. No quarterback in Atlanta history has been more efficient than Ryan. Despite his accolades and gaudy numbers, the Falcons have one playoff win in seven seasons under his realm.
That statistic is nothing more than a comical notion of Ryan being the culprit of those losses. The beloved hash-tag "QB Winz" should be erased from existence. What should never be erased is the belief that a strong front-seven could lead to success in January. Since 2012, the overall Falcons' defense hasn’t generated more than 32 sacks in a single season. The inability to sack opposing quarterbacks was highlighted by a mere 22 sacks last season. While historical facts aren’t always the best source of information, they present an excellent case here.
Past Super Bowl champions have had above-average front sevens', which played a vital role in their success. New England had 40 sacks last season. In 2013, Seattle had 44 sacks to go along with harassing Peyton Manning into the most humiliating defeat of his legendary career. Green Bay created 47 sacks during their championship season. It’s been well documented how the Giants won both their Super Bowls with a destructive pass rush that made Tom Brady look ordinary. All of these teams had stellar front sevens to force opposing quarterbacks into critical mistakes.
Atlanta hasn’t forced many errors out of opposing quarterbacks over the past two seasons. Mike Nolan’s defenses clearly lacked talent, yet his past brilliance couldn’t force quarterbacks out of the pocket without going through their second or third read. From watching champions succeed through having a stout pass rush and solid linebacker play, it has to make every franchise realize the recipe of success, besides having an above average quarterback.
In my preview column for last Friday's game, the play of the front seven was highlighted as the number one thing to watch for specifically against Tennessee. Several new faces were added to upgrade a ravaged unit. The amount of depth and upside in the front seven brought new-founded enthusiasm from a restless fan base. As the first quarter commenced, the first-string defense justified the optimism.
Ra’Shede Hageman’s first step was blistering at times. His dedication towards improving his overall fitness seems to be paying off. Paul Soliai made more standout plays in one quarter than all of last season. Tyson Jackson got into the action with an actual sack that wasn’t penalized. While many remain skeptical of Jackson playing the Red Bryant role, the former first-round pick looked more agile and explosive.
Quinn has employed several new methods to reinvigorate a franchise lacking direction. The entire team was challenged to have the best off-season of their respective career. Whether it was becoming better technically or losing weight, the message has been heard. The likes of Hageman, Jackson, and William Moore have responded to Quinn’s challenge by losing weight. Dave Archer even mentioned that Julio Jones lost five pounds during Friday night’s telecast. Toughness was constantly mentioned throughout last pre-season. That nonsensical preaching resulted in Ryan Tannehill leading Miami to a scoring drive without much resistance. It also led to allowing 13 consecutive points to a Houston offense featuring Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jonathan Grimes.
The lack of toughness was shown throughout last season. My point of mentioning those examples was based on how the defense has looked so far. Atlanta’s first string defense has already forced two turnovers compared to last year. Instead of lining up as a four-tech, Jonathan Babineaux was back to being utilized as a two-tech defensive lineman. In a matter of three plays, the reliable veteran beat Chance Warmack and stripped Marcus Mariota for a sack. Simple personnel decisions like that can pay off in drastic dividends.
Babineaux is far more effective as a defensive tackle, along with Malliciah Goodman who had a strong game. Goodman is another player that was challenged to lose a substantial amount of weight this off-season. In nickel packages, he was effective in making two defensive stops against the run, which included tossing right guard Justin McCary on his backside. With so many new faces, the third-year defensive lineman has become somewhat of an afterthought. Most of his snaps did come from playing within the second-string unit. It was still promising to see a much leaner Goodman, who showcased a much quicker first step compared to last season.
Last Friday night can be described as a brief showcase game for many key players. Quinn didn’t show many different looks, which is the case for most teams on opening night. The nickel-sub package stood out with Babineaux and Adrian Clayborn on the interior. That package can be prone to allowing significant yards on a potential draw play, given the lack of size between both players. They are known for being able to penetrate rather than take on double teams. In terms of generating a pass rush, a line of Beasley, Babineaux, Clayborn, and possibly O’Brien Schofield or Kroy Biermann is intriguing. It’s easily the most versatile defensive line in Atlanta since 2011. That was the last year that Ray Edwards had actual value as a three-down lineman.
The linebacker core showed signs of excellence as well. In terms of free agency, linebacker was easily the most addressed position based on certain contracts. Justin Durant wasn’t the most ideal replacement for Sean Weatherspoon at 29 years old. His leadership and ability as a three-down linebacker will still prove to be essential. Andrew Hirsh's piece on Durant is an excellent read to understand his true value. On the interception, Durant recognized Tennessee’s screen design brilliantly. Mariota was flustered by the offensive line breaking down immediately and threw off his back foot. It was the first time in two years that a Falcons linebacker showed excellent awareness through causing a turnover.
The jury is out on how Brooks Read will be utilized this season. As long as he plays an integral part of the Falcons becoming a top fifteen run defense, fans will appreciate his relentless motor. The cover three scheme should benefit him and Paul Worrilow. Simplicity can do wonders for a revamped defense. It contrasts drastically from a defense that was forced to run several blitz designs to generate any semblance of a pass-rush last season. Quinn continues to implement unique methods for the front seven such as the using boxing techniques to work on their hand placement and block shedding ability.
Almost every NFL team is envious of Seattle’s defense. They don't run anything distinctive, yet quarterbacks are left flustered and incapable of having much success. Supreme talent will outperform a wide variety of schemes from a defensive perspective on nearly every occasion. It doesn’t hurt that Seattle has a shutdown corner and the best safety duo in the league.
Atlanta possesses a shutdown corner (or at least on the verge), while the safety duo has potential to be difference makers. Ricardo Allen wasn’t tested against Tennessee through a limited amount of reps. His willingness to hit and not miss any tackles did make an impression. Of course, an above-average secondary is on the wish list of every defensive coordinator. It’s still nowhere near as important as having a disruptive front seven.
Friday night showed glimpses of a fast and physical defense. Not every player stood out, as Grady Jarrett and Joplo Bartu struggled on the second string defense. Allen Bradford deserves recognition for making several tackles and being generally active. He struggled to get off blocks at times, which isn’t surprising for such an inexperienced player. The former college running back will hopefully be capable of playing more than special teams this season.
The front seven’s play will be highlighted on a weekly basis. When someone watches a front seven lacking difference makers for 32 consecutive games, immediate upgrades and better performances will be expected. As embattled general manager Thomas Dimitroff continuously repeated from 2008 to 2010, this will be a process. If Quinn can get the best out of one dimensional players such as Soliai and Jackson, that can play a huge factor in Atlanta winning ten games. The development of Beasley and Hageman will rightfully be monitored the most. While the team is still somewhat rebuilding, fans want to see improvement and a home playoff game in January. Those are realistic expectations, as long as the front seven can stop the run and force quarterbacks to make quicker decisions on a more consistent basis.