When Dan Quinn mentioned earlier in the week—and we flat out missed it at the time—that Jeff Ulbrich had been involved in play calling for at least a couple of weeks, it begged several questions. Just how involved was Ulbrich? What was Quinn’s role? When did the handoff actually happen?
We don’t have all the answers to those questions just yet, but thanks to reporting from former Atlanta Journal-Constitution Falcons beat writer and current NFL Network reporter Steve Wyche, we have most of them. Wyche’s reporting builds on what we heard from the likes of The Athletic’s Jason Butt over the last week and reveals hat while Dan Quinn remains the team’s defensive coordinator, Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich are now actually calling the plays.
The @AtlantaFalcons tweak to their defensive play calling worked against the Saints. HC Dan Quinn is still the defensive coordinator but Jeff Ulbrich and Raheem Morris are now the play-callers @nflnetwork #NFLNow pic.twitter.com/MdOzJCRDdU— Steve Wyche (@wyche89) November 11, 2019
“I reported on NFL now that Falcons assistant Coach Raheem Morris told me that he called 3rd down and two-minute defenses against the Saints while Jeff Ulbrich called 1st and 2nd down defense. Ulbrich has done that since Week 6 vs. Az. This delegation is the plan moving forwards.”
From this, it’s fair to assume that Ulbrich has now had four weeks of play calling on early downs, with Morris taking over third downs and two minute defenses from Quinn this week against the Saints. The team’s dramatically improved performance against the Saints may prove to be a one game victory, but it’s noteworthy in the sense that A) Ulbrich may be settling in to his duties, B) that Morris taking over play calling situationally may have led to drastic improvements on third downs and C) Quinn appears to have taken himself out of everything except (presumably) defensive game planning at this point.
Aaron Freeman at FalcFans noted on a re-watch of the game that things didn’t look drastically different on defense for Atlanta, likely a product of continuity with Ulbrich and Morris’s inclinations not being drastically different than Quinn’s. Many players credited Morris with helping the secondary play better, however, and the team was certainly much more productive rushing the passer than they have been in recent weeks, much of that happening on third downs. Unless New Orleans just fell apart completely on Sunday, it’s fair to argue that the addition of Morris to the defense is a very, very big deal.
What does this mean?
The short answer here is that the defense appears to be improving with this new configuration, which is a huge boost to both Morris’s and Ulbrich’s outlook beyond this season. A new coach might choose to keep one or both around or they might not, but the duo’s ability to land defensive coordinator gigs will be greatly enhanced if they’re able to coax more out of this moribund Falcons defense. More importantly for our purposes, it means the Falcons might actually play better football on Sundays, which should make even a lost season more tolerable to watch.
The key will be continuing to get better communication and more aggressive play out of the secondary, rolling out personnel effectively, and of course keeping that pass rush producing. It’s notable that the Falcons under Morris and Ulbrich played in nickel a lot, giving more time to the likes of Jack Crawford, Foye Oluokun, and Adrian Clayborn to great effect. It’s also notable that the aggravating blown coverages that doomed this team all year were virtually non-existent against the Saints, and seeing that against one of the NFC’s best teams, I doubt Quinn is going to go back to the way things were any time soon.
Speaking of Quinn, there’s no way to spin this except as yet another loss for the team’s head coach. He’ll deservedly get some credit for the win on Sunday and for being willing to eat crow and hand off play calling duties to Ulbrich and then Morris, but the whole point of DQ taking over the defense was to coax more out of it than Marquand Manuel could. Not only did he fail to do that, but his defenses were worse despite fewer injuries, and now he’s divested himself of the gameday play calling altogether, if this report is accurate. Even worse, it took him until 1-4 to hand duties over to Ulbrich and until 1-7 to give up the part of the team he was struggling with the most—a frankly awful pass defense—to the capable hands of Morris. When we’re writing about why Quinn was fired—as he still almost surely will be—we’ll be dwelling a lot on him putting this team in a very deep hole before he was willing to admit he had taken on more than he could handle.
Hopefully we’ll get more details regarding these changes soon enough, but the upshot is that the defense appears to be in better hands now, and I’m just bitterly disappointed the Falcons couldn’t figure this out before it was too late to save the season.