This upcoming Friday, the Atlanta Falcons will square off against the Tennessee Titans in their 2015 preseason opener and we will finally be able to see what a Dan Quinn-coached Falcons team looks like on the field outside of practice.
If I’m being completely honest, I have no real expectations for this week’s exhibition game since the Quinn-led Falcons are an unknown commodity.
Quinn touched briefly upon those expectations this weekend after Sunday’s practice, indicating that the team will concentrate on fundamentals as opposed to running a ton of plays.
This makes sense given the fact that the team is still amidst installing their new schemes on both sides of the ball. Fundamentals are the foundation upon which good football is built and this Falcon team does need to get rebuilt from the ground up.
It appears that Quinn is taking the approach of wanting his players to play hard, fast and of course, physical, hoping the mental aspect of the game will eventually take care of itself.
It’s not exactly a novel concept, but it’s one that the Falcons probably desperately need. It’s a back-to-basics sort of reset button that brings a completely different energy to the organization and within locker room.
The Falcons spent the bulk of the past several seasons “chasing Super Bowls” as opposed to the “process” of winning. And that process should have included the fundamentals.
Thanks to former head coach Mike Smith’s overuse of the term, the word process is probably considered a dirty word by Falcon fans. Yet it wasn’t Mike Smith’s philosophy that doomed his tenure, but rather the execution (or lack thereof) of said philosophy. With greater and greater success reaped early on by Smith’s Falcons teams thanks to that process and philosophy, the team got further and further away from their core values.
Quinn will be looking to re-establish similar core values as well as establish new ones. Visitors to Flowery Branch this summer have noticed the stark change in environment that Quinn has brought thanks in part to the blaring tunes not only in practice but also in meeting rooms within team facilities.
There’s a method to the madness with the idea that the loud music energizes the players. It’s a belief that Quinn learned from Pete Carroll in Seattle, and Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly also apparently shares.
So if there’s one expectation for Friday’s matchup against the Titans, it will be that the 2015 Falcons will be very energetic. Whether that results in the Falcons putting up a “40 burger” or being the most energetic 10-point output ever, remains to be seen. But it’s likely that the Falcons will be flying around the field Friday night to a degree that hasn’t been seen for quite some time.
Improving Tackling Important for Defense
One potential output of the team’s newfound focus on fundamentals should be improved tackling. During Quinn’s tenure in Seattle, the Seahawks notably insisted on teaching the shoulder-led rugby style of tackling, resulting in one of the league’s better tackling teams over the past several seasons. The Falcons were among the league’s worst tackling teams in 2014 according to Pro Football Focus, so a similar approach will obviously be beneficial. There seemingly was never a time under Smith where tackling appeared to be the Falcons’ strong suit. That should change under Quinn.
He’s already approached safety William Moore about improving his tackling. As the defense’s leading enforcer, it’s important that Moore gets better in that regard. Using Pro Football Focus’ tackling efficiency metric, it’s clear that Moore’s tackling declined significantly the past two seasons in comparison to his first three years as a starter:
William Moore's Tackling Efficiency (2010-14)All stats are according to Pro Football Focus. Includes postseason and regular season.
|Year||Tackles||Assists||Missed Tkl||Tackling Eff|
That metric is based around how many times a player would attempt a tackle before he missed. As we clearly see with Moore, there was a steady decline in his tackling efficiency since 2011. It’s quite symbolic of the overall decline of Falcons defense under Smith and how ineffectively the team tried to improve their defense after the 2010 season.
While any improvement by Moore as a tackler can’t be fully gleaned from a single preseason game, it will be something to watch out for as the rest of the year proceeds.
Falcons Offense Ready To Compete Today
Yet while Quinn focuses on the fundamentals on the defensive side of the ball, it will likely be the offense that largely determines how successful the Falcons will be during his first season as head coach. The rebuilding that Quinn will have to undertake on defense is going to take years to complete, but the Falcons offense should be capable of competing at a high level right away.
The Falcons are unlikely to show a ton during this first preseason game. That’s because they will face the Titans again during the regular season in Week Seven and don’t want to tip their hand for when the games actually do count.
One aspect of the offense that might be dialed back is that revolving around quarterback Matt Ryan. While Ryan may feel comfortable in the new scheme, the Falcons aren’t like to share any “state secrets” this early in the summer. They’ll likely throw a couple of play-action fakes and rollouts that will likely be heavily featured by the offense this fall in this first preseason action, but the offense isn’t likely to look crisp and robust this week.
I can only speculate to how much work Ryan and the remaining starters will get this week, but if using the Seahawks over the past two summers as a template, Russell Wilson got about two series’ worth of work in each of Seattle’s past two season-openers.
Even though those Seattle teams were well-established under Carroll, I would not expected a major divergence for Quinn here in Atlanta. They might throw in a third series, but Ryan is likely to get the hook at some point during the second quarter.
Instead the Falcons’ game plan against the Titans probably will center on the running game. Certainly my attention will be primarily upon the offensive line to see how well they are taking to the zone-blocking scheme being installed by new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
Falcons New Left Guard Will Have Hands Full on Friday
The Falcons have heavily rotated the left guard position with Chris Chester, James Stone and Mike Person each getting plenty of starting reps over the past eight days of practice.
Who the Falcons start on Friday night at the position could be an indicator of where they are leaning as far as the starting guard spot goes, but ultimately it will be decided by their performances on the field. Whoever does start won’t have an easy go as they will likely see a lot of Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, one of the league’s most disruptive interior linemen.
Over the past two summers Casey has feasted upon the Falcons offensive line for a combined 2.5 sacks. The Titans have exploited the Falcons’ inability to handle stunts the past two preseasons and it would be nice to see real improvement this summer as a measuring stick for progress.
But in all honestly, I suspect whomever starts at left guard is going to struggle on those plays where he faces Casey. Chester had a tendency to struggle during his days in Washington when he faced premium defensive tackles and interior pass-rushers like Casey. Person lacks the experience, and frankly based off what little experience he does have, the ability to handle a player of Casey’s caliber. Stone struggled when blocking middling nose tackles throughout the second half of 2014 at center, so it only stands to reason that he’ll struggle against one of the league’s best pass-rushers.
The only real positive for the Falcons line is that like Ryan, Casey’s play count should be limited. The Falcons had the unfortunate pleasure of facing the Titans in the third preseason game each of the past two summers, which is usually the game where both teams’ starters play an entire half. This summer the Falcons’ blockers should have Casey out of their hair after only a dozen or so plays.
Antone’s Biggest Opportunity is Coming
Casey aside, one area of focus this Friday evening will be on the offensive line’s ability to create running lanes for the running backs. That might be reflected in the Falcons’ game plan, utilizing the majority of the snaps with the starters to run the ball. Quinn wants to be “fast and physical,” which is code for wanting to be balanced offensively. The “dinking and dunking” pass-first offense that the Falcons have featured in recent years is far from what anyone would describe as physical.
Thus it will be important to begin to see the beginnings of this identity change against the Titans. Even with the probability that running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman sit out the game due to hamstring injuries, the Falcons have a favorable matchup against a Titans defense that finished 31st against the run in 2014.
While a lot of attention might be paid to what Terron Ward, Jerome Smith and Michael Ford do in their bid to win the fourth tailback spot on the depth chart, this game also marks a perfect opportunity for Antone Smith to showcase his talents. We’ve grown accustomed to the explosiveness of Smith the past two seasons despite limited opportunities. With Freeman and Coleman injured, it’s Smith’s best chance to show that he’s not just the situational player that he’s been used as the past two years.
Smith has largely been a player that has seen most of his success as a playmaker when he’s been able to get the ball out in space on checkdowns, sweeps and tosses. There were too many instances a year ago where the Falcons would try to mix Smith into the running back rotation only to run him up the gut for a few plays to little or no success. It made him look too often like a “specialist,” a player that could be effective if a play-caller designed plays for him, but not someone that could be a true running back. By that notion I mean being able to line him up in the backfield, hand off the ball and run your normal offense expecting him to be just as effective as players like Freeman and Coleman.
However this week, Smith will get his best chance to show that he’s a much more natural running back than we’ve given him credit for up to now. If he’s successful in showing that, it will indicate that the battle to become the Falcons’ lead runner isn’t merely the two-horse race most expected it to be. It will also show that Smith is more than capable of care-taking the offense should injuries continue to limit Freeman and Coleman down the road.
Like so many other things, whether Smith emerges as that type of player after this week’s preseason opener is completely up in the air. Again, what the narratives myself and others will be talking about on Saturday after the game, is anyone’s guess.
Falcons Were Skipping Meals Under Old Coaches
But that unknown quality brings about a level of excitement and anticipation I haven’t felt for a Falcons preseason game in some time. Yet it should be said that quality alone doesn’t mean much. After all, previous summers were pretty vanilla thanks in large part to the high expectations placed upon the team.
Preseason was essentially the bread brought to your table at a restaurant before your meal. Worthy of a bite or two, but unless absolutely famished, not really worth too much attention. Under Mike Smith, it was really about getting to the meat of the main course, which in this metaphor of course was the regular season.
However over time under Smith, it became less about the main course and more about the dessert, i.e. the playoffs and a championship. Even us fans were reflective of that attitude of going through the motions of eating the main course because of a sense of entitlement that we deserved a dessert.
This may be a poor analogy because in real life, one can simply purchase your meal and dessert. But in football, you have to earn it. And the team stopped doing the little things they needed to do in order to earn it after 2012. Thus, why they needed to move on from Smith because he was not capable of course-correcting. Unfortunately for the Falcons former head coach, history probably won’t be kind as most will focus on his inability to finish what he started, as opposed to that initial foundation for success he laid.
What the long-term future holds for Quinn remains to be seen, but we’ll at least start to see him beginning to lay his own foundation for success this Friday. And I can’t wait to see how it goes.