Ahead of the Atlanta Falcons week one season opener on Sunday, a hot off the press release of the updated depth chart was released. Sure, may seem a bit mundane to some as a common occurrence from teams, but a more in-depth look at the depth chart shows a unique alignment on defense that exhibits what football nerds have been clamoring for.
Today, we take a deeper look into the Falcons defensive approach per the depth chart, and what it may all mean once the season commences.
Same formation, different concept (sort of)
For those that have been following the Falcons closely during the Dan Quinn era in Atlanta, you are already informed that defensively, the team has been operating out of a 4-2-5/3-4 hybrid scheme with ‘Bear’ fronts. This may be a foreign language to some folks, but as Quinn migrated from the Pacific Northwest to the South, a few remnants of that Seahawks defense came with him, albeit with some tweaks and modifications.
The nickel coverage look for the Falcons is a true staple of their defense for the most part. According to Football Outsiders, the Falcons defense ranked sixth in the NFL last season in terms of usage of the nickel defense, operating out of the alignment 71% of the time. Saying the nickel configuration is a common theme for the Falcons is an understatement.
The latest release of the team’s depth chart for week one shows plenty of similarities. Starting on the defensive line is the combination of defensive ends Dante Fowler Jr., and Takkarist McKinley with defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and Tyeler Davison on the interior. No surprise there.
The expected starters at linebacker play out as such as Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun are manning the middle and weak-side linebacker spots, respectively.
On the back end of the defense is where things get very, very interesting.
In past seasons, the Falcons 4-3 Under/4-2-5 scheme was often seen with a slot cornerback as that fifth defensive back. That may still be the case at various times depending on matchup, of course, especially with the Falcons signing Darqueze Dennard. This time around, per the depth chart’s listing of starters, that fifth defensive back that is instead a safety. That likely means the team is looking to deploy Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, and Damontae Kazee on the field simultaneously.
I hear the question that is being posed in your mental compartment right now: “What does the three safety look provide for the defense, Eric?” Well, for one, it gives the Falcons a number of options that they have not explored in seasons past. Unique blitz packages can be examined a little more because of Neal’s ability to be effective near the line of scrimmage, something the Falcons could stand to utilize more often.
Here is a image of what is asked from defenders in the Tampa 2 concept. Safeties are assigned to cover their half of the field, linebackers cover hooks and curls or deeper depending on play diagnosis, corners are assigned to cover flats first or get depth if no route is in their underneath zone.
Also, instead of the always utilized Cover-3 zone concept, the Falcons can incorporate more Cover-2 looks because of the presence of Kazee and Allen on the back end. Keep in mind that the new defensive coordinator this season is Raheem Morris, who is a “Tampa 2” disciple because of his time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he used it extensively.
Other capabilities and notes
As I mentioned earlier, the blitz opportunities can also abound in this particular formation. In 2019, the Falcons were 22nd in the NFL in attempted blitzes, sending an extra defender(s) just 24% of the time. A lot of that was a result of the coaching staff wanting to stay true to the concept of generating pressure with their front four on the defensive line. The flexibility of the three-safety look on defense can improve those numbers because of the athleticism and versatility the defense possesses, and the pass rush does need to improve.
Many are also wondering what does this mean for the slot corners Darqueze Dennard and Kendall Sheffield. Again, the word for the day is ‘versatility’. It’s possible to insert Dennard or Sheffield in the slot while still shuffling the safety trio depending on matchup and game situation. There is also the possibility of sliding Neal at weak-side linebacker while also having five defensive backs on the field, which would provide a modified 4-2-5 or even a 4-1-6 alignment, depending on how much they want to confuse the opposition. Sowing some chaos and getting their best defenders on the field would be a welcome sight.
Simply put, this particular defensive concept can open up things for the Falcons. It allows them to get a number of athletes on the field and also gives opposing offenses much more to prepare for. It’s an important season for the Falcons, a time to roll back the sleeves and leave it all out on the field, and this new alignment can help.