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The biggest challenges facing Dan Quinn as the Falcons’ defensive coordinator

Entering his fifth season as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, Dan Quinn will be taking full reins of the defense. Can he help his once rising defense get back to where they were headed in 2017?

New York Jets v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

As the Falcons’ 2018 season concluded, major coaching changes were bound to occur. It was apparent that both coordinators weren’t going to be there for the long haul. Steve Sarkisian was largely overwhelmed during his two seasons as offensive coordinator, particularly in matchups against top-tier defenses. Based on questionable play calling and personnel usage, the offense’s inability to produce at a high level consistently was placed on him. Although bringing back Dirk Koetter doesn’t guarantee success by any means, it’s understandable why the organization opted to hire someone with years of NFL coaching experience rather than take another chance on a college coach.

What did surprise some was the Falcons’ decision not to hire someone to replace Marquand Manuel. For Dan Quinn to take the onus of being the defensive coordinator creates plenty of intrigue. Before becoming a head coach in 2015, he held a variety of defensive coaching positions from 1994 to 2014. His remarkable journey, from being a defensive line coach at William & Mary to coordinating one of the most all-time feared defenses in Seattle, has helped mold him into becoming one of the more respected head coaches in the league.

Despite having countless responsibilities as a head coach, Quinn has decided to take control of the defensive play-calling this season. This isn’t his first time he has done this in Atlanta. In Week 13 of the 2016 season, Quinn started calling the plays in replacing former defensive coordinator Richard Smith. The defense showed major improvement with Quinn taking a more enhanced role. They stifled top quarterbacks such as Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers in what ended up being a 6-2 stretch and Super Bowl appearance. His prior success should spark optimism about the move. Unlike in 2016, Quinn faces far more pressure revamping a once-promising defense.

Elevating the defensive line

Quinn’s coaching expertise starts with the defensive line. He was the defensive line coach for collegiate programs such as William & Mary, VMI, Hofstra, and Florida. He eventually transitioned to the pros as the 49ers, Dolphins, Jets, and Seahawks hired him to be their defensive line coach for multiple seasons. From watching training camp footage over the years, it’s obvious how much Quinn still enjoys working with defensive linemen. There are numerous clips of him running drills designated for them. Between hand-fighting drills to teaching them pass-rushing techniques, Quinn embraces being in the trenches with them.

For all the criticism Quinn garnered last season about the substandard defensive line play, he has managed to bring the best out of certain linemen over the years. Vic Beasley received all the headlines for his terrific season in 2016. What tends to be forgotten is how other players elevated their game. Courtney Upshaw and Ra’Shede Hageman made a noticeable impact in vital games during Atlanta’s Super Bowl run. When Quinn took over defensive play-calling duties, he started running more twists to create havoc on clear passing downs. It worked brilliantly at times, especially in their playoff win over the Seahawks.

In 2017, Adrian Clayborn and Brooks Reed had their best seasons in Atlanta. Quinn figured out the most effective ways to utilize both veterans. Jack Crawford is another success story, as he had the best season of his career last year. One of Quinn’s biggest attributes is his ability to identify how a defensive lineman can flourish in his rotations. Shifting versatile players around the defensive line like Clayborn and Crawford can create more mismatches inside and opportunities to run twists with explosive players like Beasley and Takkarist McKinley. The Falcons’ defensive line was at its best in 2017. They had a strong collection of emerging talent and steady veterans to compete with the NFC’s best teams. After severely lacking in depth last season, Quinn may have the talent to help them get back to the upper echelon of the conference.

In order to get back into the upper echelon, two of his former first round picks must evolve as edge rushers. Beasley and McKinley are going to be the Falcons’ primary pass rushers for the second consecutive season. Despite not receiving the production he needed from them last year, Quinn remains optimistic about both players. Taking a more “hands on” approach with Beasley will hopefully help the embattled edge rusher develop more tools in his pass-rushing arsenal. A similar approach will be needed for McKinley, who possesses the power and explosive traits to become a true force. If he can refine his overall technique, a third year leap can be expected of the charismatic pass rusher.

A few other players will need to emerge on the defensive line. Grady Jarrett is going to be at the center of everything, while Crawford and Clayborn are expected to rotate and generate pressure in the nickel set. All three players can be counted on in their respective roles. It’ll be on Quinn to figure out who else can play significant snaps at a relatively high level. There are high expectations on Allen Bailey to bring solidity within their base set. Deadrin Senat is another intriguing option, as the second-year player had an impressive preseason. It will take a collective effort in the trenches to beat the Saints, Eagles, Rams, Panthers, and Seahawks this season. With Quinn taking full control of the defense, he’ll need substantial improvement from a unit filled with notable names, capable veterans, and promising talent.

Isaiah Oliver: The prototypical cornerback for Quinn’s defense

When the Falcons hired Quinn in February 2015, there were many personnel and schematic curiosities about his defense. One of the more common discussions circulated around Quinn’s preference for bigger cornerbacks. Seattle’s defense had two massive cornerbacks in Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. To have two tall, physical cornerbacks with long arms gave Quinn what he needed for his Cover-3 based defense. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford weren’t exactly his ideal cornerbacks from a size standpoint. That’s why Quinn made drafting another cornerback a major priority in his first season.

Drafting Jalen Collins in the second round will likely go down as his biggest ever draft mistake. Despite showing some signs of promise in 2016, Collins’ inability to change direction in man coverage and, more importantly, stay out of trouble led him to being released in 2017. The early-round selection did reveal Quinn’s intentions. He wanted a cornerback that possesses the athletic and physical traits for his defense. That was one of the biggest reasons behind selecting Oliver in the second round last year.

Although Oliver isn’t quite as tall as Sherman or Browner, he possesses the length (33 ½ arms) and speed (4.5) to align with Quinn’s philosophy. The former second-round pick showed glimpses in limited reps last season. He particularly shined in Atlanta’s Week 16 win over Carolina. Where Oliver will need to improve is at the line of scrimmage. He whiffed on a few occasions in man coverage against the Packers and Buccaneers, which led to big completions downfield. Secondary coach Doug Mallory is working extensively with Oliver to use his physical gifts more effectively. It’s something that will greatly benefit him in the long haul, especially in a division filled with talented wide receivers.

How Oliver performs will play a major deciding factor into how much the defense improves under Quinn. Not many people expected the front office to select a cornerback at the time they did. It spoke volumes about how much Quinn wanted to add size at the cornerback position. Oliver was highly regarded as a prospect coming out of Colorado. It’s time to see if he can handle the man and zone coverage responsibilities that Quinn’s scheme entails.

Altering the scheme and taking more chances

It’s not difficult to diagnose the glaring issues surrounding the Falcons’ defense. They don’t generate enough pressure with a four-man rush. Other than 2017 when the defense was legitimately a top-ten unit, stopping the run has proven to be problematic during Quinn’s tenure. Not being able to get off the field on third down is another constant yearly problem. What tends to go unnoticed is their inability to force turnovers.

They have finished near the bottom of the league in creating takeaways over the past two seasons. If it wasn’t for playing multiple backup quarterbacks at the end of last season, they probably don’t finish with 19 turnovers. For all their success in 2017, the defense produced 16 turnovers, including only eight interceptions. Some of the blame can be placed on the personnel. Trufant has dropped at least five interceptions since 2017. Not being able to generate consistent pressure allows opposing quarterbacks the opportunity to make easy decisions in the pocket. It’s hard to produce turnovers when quarterbacks can take their time and not make high-risk throws.

That’s something the coaching staff will need to address. Quinn doesn’t like to blitz often. Winning with a four-man rush, while staying organized in the back end, is what he ultimately wants. In a league being taken over by innovative offensive masterminds, there comes a point where modifications have to be made. Quinn can’t solely depend on his talent and scheme. It’ll take more creativity to cope with coaches like Sean McVay and Sean Payton.

How Quinn gets creative will consist of something beyond running a variety of stunts. Devising more blitzes with his impressive linebacker core would be beneficial. De’Vondre Campbell had great success blitzing in 2017, while Foye Oluokun’s athleticism and readiness to handle contact makes him a good fit as well. There is also the possibility of continuing to run more corner blitzes. Brian Poole had success early in the season last year, before the coaching staff decided not to blitz as much for the majority of the season. With Deion Jones back and ready to make plays all over the field, Quinn should feel more comfortable taking chances. It’s one of the best ways for them to start creating turnovers and giving more opportunities to an offense capable of taking over games.