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Out coached and outworked: Dan Quinn faces early adversity with his revamped defense

The Falcons added speed on their defense. That hasn't translated into improving the pass rush, open-field tackling, or handing coverage assignments. Questionable coaching decisions haven't helped either.

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Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

There were several growing concerns about the Atlanta Falcons going into the season, including:

  • How will Matt Ryan acclimate to Kyle Shanahan's offense in his second season?
  • Can the pass rush show some life following several years of being virtually non-existent?
  • The wide receiver and cornerback depth is troubling as well, how will the Falcons solve it?

The one thing nobody expected was that this team would be out coached and outworked.

It's easy to declare that the winning coach outperformed the losing coach. This couldn't have been more apparent between Dirk Koetter and Dan Quinn. While Koetter's offense flourished by heavily using screens and underneath passes, Quinn's defense looked sloppy and overwhelmed. Talent is clearly an issue across the Falcons defense. It wasn't helped by Quinn's personnel changes.

Unconvincing choices

Quinn is known for utilizing multiple rotations and keeping players fresh. While he certainly used several different players, both defensive packages were underwhelming. After Vic Beasley was slated to play as a strongside linebacker, Quinn opted to play Phillip Wheeler at the position. Tyson Jackson was being used as a defensive tackle during preseason. The results were promising, as Jackson was pushing guards around in a three-tech role.

Quinn decided to shift Jackson back to the outside, while inserting Jonathan Babineaux into the base package. That forced Derrick Shelby into lining up as a defensive tackle within their nickel package. Both decisions didn't make sense, as Jackson is a liability off the edge and Shelby consistently gets overpowered on the inside. Why is a natural defensive end being utilized on the interior, while an immobile prototypical 3-4 defensive end forced on the edge?

On Jameis Winston's impeccable touchdown pass to Mike Evans, the pocket was completely clean. That proved to be a reoccurring theme during the entire game. This included Winston's first quarter interception, as he had enough time in the pocket to make himself a cup of coffee. In the base package last season, Jackson and Kroy Biermann lined up as defensive ends. Jackson and Brooks Reed were used as defensive ends during yesterday's game, and there just isn't a semblance of hope that either is going to turn into a pass rushing asset.

The front office invested in Shelby to be a potential difference maker. Forcing him to primarily play as an interior pass rusher rather than utilize his strengths isn't sensible. He excelled as a left defensive end by playing the run well and overpowering opposing tackles. Shelby is known for his power, not speed or technique like Adrian Clayborn. Employing both of them on the inside will allow offenses to run up the middle without much resistance. They were acquired as defensive ends unlike Jonathan Babineaux, who is clearly a well-rounded defensive tackle and fit well in their nickel package. Moving Jackson and Shelby from their expected roles translated into negative outcomes for a porous defense.

Ra'Shede Hageman clearly outplayed Courtney Upshaw during preseason, but was inactive for reasons that still haven't been explained. Hageman was arrested back in March for his involvement in a domestic violence incident, which just came to light today. Upshaw doesn't have much upside, despite adding weight and playing in a new role. Why did the coaching staff keep a healthy third-year player with decent upside on the sideline? Your guess is as good as mine.

Evaluating penalties and coaching

The personnel changes didn't completely doom the Falcons. Unacceptable penalties also happened during the worst possible moments. From Chris Chester's unnecessary roughness penalty that took them out of field goal range to Robert Alford losing his cool against Mike Evans, everything unraveled in the third quarter, which is infamous for being their worst quarter in recent years. Pre-snap penalties on both sides of the ball occurred as well. Mike Smith's teams were always one of the least penalized teams in the league. Although they only committed seven penalties today, most of them could have easily been avoided.

For all the criticism directed towards Shanahan, he called a fairly good game. The play-action fakes and repeated screens became redundant. He still managed to catch Tampa Bay's defense off guard on several occasions. Utilizing Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman together in backfield sets gave their front seven fits. The misdirection plays need to be implemented more often. It was the only time in the game where star linebacker Lavonte David looked out of position.

Separating Mohamed Sanu on the outside allowed him to work over smaller cornerbacks such as Brent Grimes. In my preview column, I noted that the Falcons bigger wide receiver duo needed to use their size advantage over Tampa Bay's smaller cornerback trio. They didn't target them enough, although the Bucs' defensive line playing a significant role in altering those plans.

Jake Matthews struggled with penalties and Robert Ayers, while Gerald McCoy abused Chester for the most part. McCoy contributed with three tackles, two quarterback hits, two tackles for a loss, two passes defensed, and one sack.

It may seem harsh to blame Quinn, but the defense was decimated in the second and third quarter. They couldn't generate any pass rush or make an initial open-field tackle. Charles Sims' touchdown would have the most embarrassing moment in Quinn's coaching tenure, if it weren't for Winston's run last season. Rugby tackling drills were applied during the offseason. That hasn't translated into much improvement, although Deion Jones and Kemal Ishmael made multiple standout plays in the open field. According to Pro Football Focus, the defense missed 12 tackles.

Tough spot for Matt Ryan

Ryan looked mostly composed during the entire game. He didn't throw any near interceptions or make any noticeable poor decisions. Jacob Tamme, who continues to make plays, salvaged a few inaccurate throws. Interior pressure will usually be an issue for most quarterbacks. Ryan isn't an exception, especially with McCoy deflecting multiple passes that would have resulted in easy first downs. It was a promising performance, given his decision-making and inaccuracy last season. Unfortunately, it wasn't the signature performance that Ryan used to have in divisional games.

The franchise quarterback missed a wide-open Sanu on third down. It's the type of play that you simply have to make during that moment. His prior pass intended for Julio Jones wasn't accurate either. When your defense is being gashed and the running game can't get going, the game is going to fall on the quarterback's shoulders. Ryan needed to be efficient on the final drive. It didn't transpire, which has become the norm against Tampa Bay. The Bucs have won three of their last five games in Atlanta. Dating back to 2012, Tampa Bay's defense made a game-ending stop in each victory.

Given the difficult schedule, this is an excruciating loss for the Falcons. With Carolina, Denver, and Seattle on the horizon, it puts immediate pressure on the team to perform. The defense showed no signs of generating a pass rush without blitzing. Jones and Sanu suffered injuries, which isn't good for a wide receiver corps lacking playmakers. Improvement is clearly needed, which starts from the players to coaching staff. The pressure is only going to intensify for Quinn headed into a two-game road stretch.