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Coaching or personnel? Either way, Dan Quinn’s defense continues to flounder

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The Falcons’ defense was supposed to rebound this season. They have instead looked disorganized, unprepared, and undisciplined to start the season.

Tennessee Titans v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

It was supposed to be a revival season for the Falcons. With star players returning on both sides of the ball, they were expected to reestablish themselves as a contender. The hiring of Dirk Koetter wasn’t received with great applause. Based on the talent level of the skill players and major investment put into the offensive line, many expected the offense to be good enough regardless of Koetter’s flaws. That clearly hasn’t transpired, as the offense has been held under 14 points in two of the first four games of the season. While Koetter has plenty of work to do, the pieces are there to rebound and be more productive. That can’t be said about the defense.

It’s been an extremely disappointing start of the season to what was supposed to be a resurgent defense. Deion Jones and Ricardo Allen have played at a high level after missing most of last season. Along with Grady Jarrett, they have performed the best on an otherwise underwhelming unit. Young players aren’t taking the necessary steps needed in expanded roles. Other players, who entered this season with significant pressure on them, haven’t elevated their game. The coaching staff warrants criticism as well for the defense’s lack of discipline and organization. To start off so profoundly badly in three out of four games raises major questions about Quinn. Where has it gone all wrong?

Inexcusable slow starts

The Falcons have allowed 71 points in the first half this season. That includes a whopping 44 points in their previous two games. After getting torn apart by Dalvin Cook on opening weekend, the Falcons have shown noticeable improvement stopping the run. Allen Bailey and Tyeler Davison have been excellent signings in terms of adding strength and discipline to the defensive line. The defense’s woes against the run have converted into a combination of being positionally disorganized and undisciplined. There are players who aren’t doing enough or making critical errors in key moments on a weekly basis. Quinn will ultimately take the most responsibility for their baffling slow starts.

Not adjusting to Frank Reich’s ball-control, conservative game plan put the defense in precarious positions. When Quinn decided to get creative with blitzes, Jacoby Brissett would find an opening underneath that would go for a first down. Allowing an offense still transitioning to life without their franchise quarterback to pick apart your defense with quick passes underneath is a schematic issue. Quinn’s defense is primarily based around playing Cover 3. It’s understandable why he wouldn’t completely divert from his coaching philosophy. Not being more adaptable is where the problem lies, particularly against well-coached teams such as Indianapolis.

Playing more man coverage shouldn’t be viewed as an obvious solution. On two of Marcus Mariota’s three touchdown passes, Desmond Trufant and Isaiah Oliver were both playing man on the outside. They failed to make plays that should have been prevented. Trufant’s poor positioning and inability to change direction played a major part in A.J. Brown’s first touchdown.

This is where players must be held accountable for these particular slow starts. Quinn can’t do much when Deion Jones fails to bring down Corey Davis on third and 15. For a defense known for their speed and athleticism, it’s bizarre to see a unit start games so lackadaisically. Stronger starts will not only create more turnover opportunities, but also help give the offense better field position to work with.

Lack of progression across the board

There are players underperforming on all three levels of Quinn’s defense. Given their first-round pedigrees, Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley will be at the top of any list when assessing the defense’s struggles. They have combined for two of the team’s five sacks. After taking a hands-on approach to work the embattled edge rusher, Quinn has opted to use Beasley in other ways. He has used him as a stand-up linebacker, dropped him into coverage on blitzes, and off the edge in 3-4 or 5-2 setups.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a plan with Beasley. When he is coming off the edge as a pass rusher, there isn’t anything substantially different about his game. The same can be said about McKinley, who outside of his terrific performance against Philadelphia has been mostly anonymous. Neither pass rusher has shown much refinement in their overall technique to make a legitimate difference.

In what was supposed to be one of the stronger positional groups on the team, the linebacker unit has been culpable for many of the defense’s issues. Jones remains as one of the best inside linebackers in the league. Outside of a few missed tackles, there aren’t any critiques you can make against him. The rest of the group has been disastrous.

De’Vondre Campbell played better against Tennessee, but it won’t overshadow his woeful showings in the first three games. From not getting off blocks in the running game to being consistently late on coverage assignments, Campbell is becoming more of a liability than asset. His terrific 2017 season seems like a distant memory at this point. Foye Oluokun has looked lost in limited reps this season as well. After showing plenty of promise last season, Oluokun appeared to be on the right track. He is currently losing reps to Beasley when Quinn decides to use a more traditional 4-3 base defense.

What wasn’t being discussed enough about the Falcons going into the season was their untested cornerback group. The front office’s decision to release Robert Alford and not re-sign Brian Poole was completely understandable. To not bring in a veteran for competition and depth purposes was surprising. Oliver has looked overwhelmed as a starter so far. While the second-year cornerback is showing signs of improvement, his lapses in coverage are costing the defense in critical moments. It also doesn’t help that Damontae Kazee doesn’t look comfortable enough to press wide receivers in the slot. The Falcons are allowing over 73 percent of passes to be completed on third down per Ben Fennell. Both corners are a major reason behind the high completion percentage.

Quinn’s coaching methods

Since taking full control of the defense, Quinn has added a few wrinkles to the defense. Applying more 3-4 and 5-2 looks up front has benefited the defense against the run. The trio of Jarrett, Bailey, and Davison have given opposing offensive line fits. The different schematic fronts do have its drawbacks. It puts the edge defenders further away from the opposing tackles. There are also times where they have to stand up rather than get in their three-point stance, which isn’t ideal for players like McKinley and Adrian Clayborn. For all the criticism of the edge rushers, they aren’t always being placed in the best positions to generate pressure.

Quinn has never been known for being overly creative. His preference of relying on a four man rush instead of calling exotic blitzes is well-documented. When Quinn decides to blitz, it doesn’t cause enough havoc to force stops or turnovers. The Falcons are allowing slightly more than half of third downs to be converted, which is fourth worst in the league. They have only forced three turnovers, which all came against the Eagles. There has been some unfortunate turnover luck with Campbell and Clayborn forcing fumbles against Tennessee, yet not managing to recover any of them. Besides that, there haven’t been many moments where opposing quarterbacks nearly threw an interception or were strip sacked. Opposing quarterbacks remain far too comfortable in the pocket against Quinn’s defense.

The lack of intensity during games raises questions about Quinn’s message. Are players starting to faze him out? Despite being known for bringing positive energy and being a players’ coach, Quinn knows it doesn’t mean much when his team is losing. The Falcons’ front office saw it firsthand with Mike Smith in 2013-2014. Years of success begin to lose value when opposing teams are overwhelming and out-scheming you. Jarrett was asked about Quinn’s message getting to the team. While the stud defensive tackle remained fully behind his coach, his response does make you wonder about other players in the locker room.

Quinn has built a solid, well-disciplined group off the field where locker room friction doesn’t occur (at least not publicly). That group hasn’t shown up on the field often this season. Between getting his defense aligned better pre-snap to utilizing certain talent more effectively, Quinn must improve on getting the best out of a defense, albeit with noticeable flaws, featuring established stars and promising talent.