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11 Jan 2018

Film Room: Falcons Defense

by Charles McDonald

When Dan Quinn was hired as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 2015, he constantly repeated the same phrase that encapsulated his vision for the Falcons moving forward: "Fast and physical." Quinn had been the defensive coordinator for the Seahawks in 2013 and 2014 when they reached back-to-back Super Bowls, including a dismantling of the record-setting Broncos offense in Super Bowl XLVIII.

The overall premise of these defenses wasn't complicated. Quinn kept the scheme simple with a lot of Cover-3 and Cover-1 and let Seattle's flock of athletes take advantage of their talents by allowing them to play fast. Quinn had his work cut out for him upon arriving with the Falcons (Atlanta was 32nd in defensive DVOA in 2014), but in the three years since his arrival the Falcons have built one of the fastest and most entertaining defenses in football.

The current iteration of the Falcons defense isn't nearly as dominant as the units Quinn coached in Seattle, but their personnel allows them to match up with just about anyone they face. Since Quinn has been the head coach, Atlanta has drafted extremely well on the defensive side of the ball. Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell, Takkarist McKinley, and 2016 undrafted free agent Brian Poole are all players who hold impactful roles on Atlanta's defense.

     

While Quinn was in Seattle, his defenses greatly benefitted from the range and speed that linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright provided in the middle of the defense. The Falcons found their versions of Wagner and Wright in 2016 when they drafted Deion Jones in the second round and De'Vondre Campbell in the fourth round. As the Falcons find themselves on the cusp of another NFC Championship berth, Jones and Campbell are going to be integral pieces to the Falcons defense. Those two, along with the rest of the Falcons back seven, had a strong start in Atlanta's wild-card win against the Los Angeles Rams.

Over the past two seasons, the Falcons have increased their creativity on defense. Having two linebackers in the middle of the field who each ran 4.5 40-yard dashes allows the Falcons to be more aggressive because they know Jones and Campbell have a higher chance of getting home. Gap exchanges versus the run are an easy way to cause disruption for opposing offenses, and the Falcons have the speed in the second level of their defense to be effective on these plays.

On this play, the Falcons are playing standard run fits across the board, except for Takkarist McKinley and Deion Jones on the edge of the offensive formation. At the snap of the ball they exchange gaps, which causes just enough split-second confusion for the offensive line. The philosophy for blitzes and gap exchanges is simple: get home.

Quinn allows his defensive line to be extremely aggressive up the field. After McKinley takes his slant steps to cross the tackle's face he immediately redirects into the backfield, forcing Rams running back Todd Gurley to bounce outside. This drives Gurley right into the arms of Jones, who has replaced McKinley's gap responsibility on the edge. Jones' speed allows him to arrive at the ballcarrier the moment McKinley gets into the backfield.

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Atlanta also used gap exchanges to create big plays in the passing game. De'Vondre Campbell's sack of Jared Goff was a perfectly timed twist that overwhelmed the Rams' offensive line.

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Executing a twist with the timing and depth that Campbell and Adrian Clayborn show here takes a lot of practice. Clayborn helps create this sack for Campbell by exploding up the field and forcing left tackle Andrew Whitworth to open his hips. Once Whitworth starts chasing Clayborn, a gaping hole opens for Campbell to accelerate through and take down the quarterback. Keanu Neal's coverage was just good enough to make Goff pump fake, affording Campbell the time he needed to make the play.

While Jones and Campbell collected their own explosive plays against the Rams, they (particularly Jones) also helped their teammates be effective defenders.

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On the surface, this play appears to just be a tremendous open-field tackle by Brian Poole on Gurley, but it was the coverage on the back end that forced Goff to check down. Goff's first read on the play is Sammy Watkins running the dig route from the left side of the formation. Watkins is the designated option on this play. In theory, Cooper Kupp running a nine route up the seam on the other side of the play should clear out enough space in the middle of the field for Goff to hit Watkins for a first down. However, Jones makes a great play in coverage.

After Jones recognizes the play fake, he immediately knows where he needs to be on the field. Jones redirects, accelerates, and finds Watkins on the dig route before Goff can throw it to him. Goff rotates his head back to Kupp running up the seam, but with Ricardo Allen lurking in the middle of the field, his only option was to check the ball down to Gurley.

This isn't to take away from Poole's incredible takedown of an MVP candidate one-on-one in the open field despite a 25-pound weight disadvantage. It's mainly to show the decision-making and process that leads to an exceptional individual play by Poole. Atlanta's tackling, in conjunction with the coverage, made life difficult for Sean McVay and the Rams' offense.

     

Perhaps the most impressive feat by the Falcons was how well they shut down the Rams' passing attack. Atlanta held Jared Goff to 5.5 adjusted net yards per attempt, well below Goff's regular season average of 7.7 adjusted net yards per attempt, which led the NFL this season. Fifth-year cornerback Robert Alford helped lead the charge in this department, as he had one of his best games of the season.

Most teams struggled to defend the Rams this year because they didn't have the personnel and athleticism to match Watkins and Robert Woods in man coverage. This wasn't the case at all for Atlanta. Having two accomplished cornerbacks like Alford and Desmond Trufant gives Atlanta room to be a bit more simple and straightforward in their coverage assignments.

The Rams broke the huddle with a 3x1 trey formation. The Rams have three receiving options on the right side of the formation and one (Watkins) on the left. Since Alford is lined up on the one-receiver side, his assignment is to take Watkins in man coverage.

This is where Alford's physical gifts give him an edge over most cornerbacks in this situation. He has no problem going step for step down the field with Watkins. Goff further aided Alford by slightly underthrowing this ball.

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This is actually an area of Alford's game that has improved since the arrival of Quinn and his coaching staff. In the past, these are plays that would have been huge defensive pass interference penalties, but Alford showed off the patience and discipline he has learned over the years as he waited to bat the ball down.

Limiting Watkins to one catch for 23 yards wasn't all Alford; it was a group effort. Jones had arguably the most impressive play on Watkins at the most critical juncture in the game.

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The vast majority of NFL teams don't have a middle linebacker who can match average receivers in man coverage, let alone a good receiver like Watkins. On fourth down late in the fourth quarter, with a potential comeback opportunity on the line, Jones took Watkins in man coverage and had no problem executing his assignment.

One could argue (and many have) that Jones was a little grabby with his coverage on Watkins, but it's an impressive play nonetheless. Jones has emerged into a star in his second NFL season. He's a rare defensive weapon who has no issue covering tight ends, running backs, and even some of the top receivers in the game.

This is the vision that Quinn had of the Falcons defense when he was hired in 2015. It has been exciting watching one of the weakest defenses in the league evolve into a unit that's capable of playing great defense on any given week, though they do still have some inconsistencies to overcome. Falcons' fans should also be encouraged by the progress that the defense has made over the season. From Week 1 to 9 the Falcons ranked 29th in defensive DVOA. Since Week 10, Atlanta ranks 11th in defensive DVOA, and they have improved equally against the run and the pass.

If the Falcons are going to make a run for redemption and get back into the Super Bowl, they'll need their playmakers on the defense to continue to pick up the slack for the offense. Even if they don't get back to the Super Bowl, the Falcons defense is set up for long-term success and just needs a little offseason tweaking to reach the elite ranks. Saturday, they'll have a decent chance to get back to the NFC Championship Game as they matchup against a depleted Eagles offense.

Posted by: Charles McDonald on 11 Jan 2018

3 comments, Last at 12 Jan 2018, 11:49am by brenthutto

Comments

1
by JustAnotherFalc... :: Fri, 01/12/2018 - 1:05am

Inconsistency, thy name is long yardage situations. The Rams game was possibly the best Falcon defensive effort of the year, and they were still 3 for 9 on yielding first downs on third and 6+ to go and also gave up 2 first downs on 2nd and 10+. If they can close that hole down, then this defense will be much less frustrating for me to watch.

2
by jtr :: Fri, 01/12/2018 - 11:08am

That second GIF would probably have been a sack even if both players had just rushed straight up field rather than twisting. The Falcons had two pass rushers over there, and the Rams only accounted for one of them. As long as the Falcons rushers kept a little bit of space between themselves, there was no way for the LT to block both of them.

3
by brenthutto :: Fri, 01/12/2018 - 11:49am

On that first GIF, didn't the offensive tackle (79) simply make a huge mistake by turning back (way too late) to follow McKinley instead of continuing in his original direction toward the edge?

His first step and a half was sending him right into Jones' path. Surely he'd have at least knocked him off stride instead of giving him a straight run into Gurley.

Is this sort of gap exchange always so confusing to offensive linemen? To me that looks like a plain old blown assignment by 79. Surely most NFL linemen aren't that easily flummoxed...