We finally got the chance to see the Atlanta Falcons take the field with Dan Quinn as their head coach, and $20 pair of khakis aside, things for the most part looked very good in their 31-24 preseason-opening win over the Tennessee Titans on Friday evening.
The starting offense looked sharp in its’ lone series of action, which is all one asks for in the first preseason game. It made perfect sense since there has always been the expectation that it would be the unit most likely to hit the ground running with the new coaching staff. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan isn’t reinventing anything in Atlanta’s offense this season, just retooling it.
The starting offense looked strong, mounting a 10-play, 91-yard drive to kick off action on Friday night. Most of those yards came via the air as quarterback Matt Ryan connected with wide receiver Julio Jones four times for 61 yards. It’s not exactly ground-breaking that the Falcons offense will mostly revolve around Ryan getting the ball to Jones.
Preseason Win Hints At Falcons’ High Use of Play Action in 2015
The only notable change with the Falcons’ passing game was how much that opening series featured play action, something I wrote about last month. Half of Ryan’s six passes included a fake to a running back, with two of them being the team’s longest passes for 26 and 16 yards, both to Jones. The fake handoffs to the running backs pulled up the Titans linebackers and allowed Jones to get behind them for big gains both times. The third play-action pass was meant to be another big gain to Jones, but Ryan wound up checking it down to fullback Patrick DiMarco in the flat for a 12-yard gain when unblocked pressure off the edge rushed his throw.
Coupled with the four actual runs the Falcons had on their opening series, one could say that seven of the team’s 10 offensive plays revolved around the running game. That’s primarily the retooling that Shanahan seeks to do as Quinn hopes to bring much more balance to a Falcons offense that hasn’t been missing it for some time.
No team threw the ball a higher percentage of plays than the Falcons did collectively over the past three seasons, with 65.2 percent of their offensive plays being passes. Quinn comes from a Seattle Seahawks team that saw the least amount of passes of any team in the league, passing the ball 47.1 percent of their offensive plays over that same span. While it’s highly doubtful that the Falcons reach Seahawks levels of run dominance in 2015, the expectation should fully be that the team approaches more closely to the league average over the past three years, which has been 58.1 percent of offensive plays being passes.
While the Falcons weren’t very effective trying to move the ball on the ground, gaining just five yards on four runs, there’s reason to be optimistic once lead running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman return from hamstring injuries later this summer that things will improve. Also the Falcons are still tinkering with their offensive line and might not have settled yet on which five players are the team’s best options moving forward. After all, the only real negative from the offensive throughout Friday night was the lack of openings for the team’s backs.
While the Falcons won’t require having a dominant running game to be an effective play-action team this year, they do have to remain committed to the run. The Browns offense coordinated by Shanahan a year ago had the fourth-highest percentage of quarterback pass plays involving play-action according to Pro Football Focus’ data.
According to the premium website, 29 percent of the Browns’ dropbacks included play action a year ago, yet the team only ranked 17th in the NFL in rushing yards. However, they ranked sixth in rushing attempts on the season showing the importance of being committed to the running game since it involves defenses reacting to play action that makes it effective. Even though the Browns’ running game was fairly average in 2014, opposing teams still had to respect it because of the team’s propensity to keep the ball on the ground. Thus linebackers and safeties were more likely to bite on their run keys, providing that extra second’s worth of hesitation to allow Browns receivers to slip in behind them for big gains.
The result of this was that Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer had one of the biggest increases in his passing yards per attempt on play-action passes (10.1) versus non-play-action plays (6.5). Hoyer’s yards per attempt increased by 3.6 yards, which was the fourth highest among NFL regulars at quarterback last season. We already saw a substantial increase for Ryan on Friday night, as he averaged 18 yards on his three play-action pass attempts versus 7.3 yards per attempt on non-play-action passes. Obviously, the small sample size skews the results, but it’s just a hint of what is to come in Atlanta this season.
Falcons Defense Looked Fast and Physical
However the Falcons’ defense under might have been the most surprising unit from Friday’s win over the Titans. Quinn preached “fast and physical” play upon his hiring by the team last February and that’s exactly what we saw among the starting units.
The Falcons’ defensive starters forced a pair of turnovers in just ten snaps of work on the Titans’ opening two drives. The first was an excellent read by new linebacker Justin Durant, picking off Titans rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota on a screen pass. The play was somewhat reminiscent of another interception by a Falcons linebacker several years ago, where Sean Weatherspoon picked off Drew Brees on botched checkdown to running back Chris Ivory.
This time Titans running back Bishop Sankey was unable to locate the throw in the air but Durant did, reading the play beautifully to set up a Falcons field goal and push the team’s lead to 10-0. The fact that Durant’s interception was similar to that of Weatherspoon’s is foretelling since Durant is expected to fill a very Spoon-like role in the defense this season.
Weatherspoon, the team’s defensive leader from the past few years, was not re-signed by the team this offseason likely in large part because the team didn’t want to pony up money for a player that had trouble remaining healthy.
The team filled that void quickly by adding Durant, another player that has been prone to injury over the years. Durant has missed on average roughly four games per year over the course of his seven-year professional career. However, the Falcons have already begun taking steps to limit his reps this summer in the hopes that it results in Durant’s first year where he starts all 16 games is his eighth season here in Atlanta in 2015. Based off Friday night’s action, things are certainly looking up for the veteran linebacker.
Babineaux Benefits From Lighter Workload
The Falcons’ other forced turnover against the Titans was generated by a long-time veteran in defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, whose pressure on Mariota caused the ball to slip from his grasp upon for a fumble. Linebacker Paul Worrilow scooped up the loose ball and ran it in for a touchdown, giving the Falcons a 17-0 lead little more than 10 minutes into the game.
Like Durant, it’s notable that Babineaux was the player that made that play as he hopes that Quinn’s arrival can have a transformative effect on the remainder of his career. As noted before, Babineaux has played the sixth-most snaps of any defensive tackle in the league combined over the past three seasons. Over that span, he has played 2,486 snaps or 75 percent of the team’s combined 3,331 plays according to Pro Football Focus.
That number is 841 more plays than the next highest defensive tackle in Corey Peters, who had 1,645 snaps combined over the past three years. When you realize that Babineaux has averaged 829 defensive snaps per year since 2012, you realize that his body has taken an entire season’s worth of more tear than the next most-played defensive tackle on the team.
However on Friday night, Babineaux appeared in just five defensive snaps. At first glance that is not overly notable since the team’s other starters along the defensive line (excluding rookie edge-rusher Vic Beasley) also played just five snaps. But what is notable is that along with incoming pass-rushers Adrian Clayborn and O’Brien Schofield, all of Babineaux’s snaps came in the team’s nickel sub-package.
The fact that six of the team’s main defensive linemen all played five snaps is very Quinn-esque. That was the case with the Seahawks in 2013, when exactly seven of that team’s defensive linemen played between 46 and 58 percent of the team’s total regular-season snaps. Beasley would make the seventh of the group, playing all 10 of the defensive snaps in which the Falcons’ starting offense was on the field because he played in both base and nickel. The others were clearly split into two distinct groups of players with the aforementioned trio being the nickel group, while Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson and Ra’Shede Hageman, the team’s three biggest additions on defense last year, becoming the base group of personnel.
It’s ironic given how much emphasis former Falcons head coach Mike Smith put on beefing up the run defense that Quinn might be the coach that actually reaps the benefits of it by putting a trio of 300-plus-pounders on the field. The only major question that remains unanswered is whether the 246-pound Beasley will be joining them and become the team’s lone every-down player? Based off Quinn’s history in Seattle, the answer is probably no.
It’s likely the Falcons will feature a heavy rotation of the group and the dichotomy seen in the group in this first preseason action won’t be as strict once the regular season arrives. But the goal will be to ask certain players to do what they do best: stop the run, while others will primarily focus on putting heat on opposing quarterbacks and the Falcons will heavily rotate the group to keep all of them fresh.
Is Paul Worrilow Improving?
Worrilow, who recovered the fumble forced by Babineaux, is another player that hopes that Quinn’s arrival will be a renaissance for his career. Following a very disappointing 2014 campaign after a promising rookie year, Worrilow really needs a kick in the pants this season. In a limited sample, the third-year linebacker gave reason for optimism. Worrilow managed to do something against the Titans, that he rarely did a year ago: beat a blocker in the hole.
Check out the following GIF where Worrilow takes on and beats Titans tight end Anthony Fasano at the point of attack to help on the tackle:
This one play doesn’t suddenly make Worrilow into a “standout” linebacker, but it does at least suggest that improvement is coming for the third-year linebacker.
Worrilow certainly is a player that needs it as there’s a good chance that middle linebacker becomes one of the team’s biggest offseason priorities in 2016 if he doesn’t have a better year. Quinn benefited from the presence of Bobby Wagner at middle linebacker during his final two years in Seattle. But throughout the coach’s career as a defensive line coach, his teams have always featured quality players in the middle. When Quinn was coaching the line in 2009 and 2010 in Seattle, that player was Lofa Tatupu. David Harris, Zach Thomas and current Falcons linebacker coach Jeff Ulbrich were middle linebackers for his respective stints with the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers. It remains to be seen if Worrilow can play at a level comparable to these other players.
Speaking of Ulbrich, he’s likely very willing to try and get his hands on his former protege at UCLA, linebacker Myles Jack, next offseason unless Worrilow can give him reasons not to. Jack is moving from outside to inside linebacker this year, which is timely. In my forecast of the 2018 season, I projected that Jack would land with the Falcons as their top draft selection in 2016.
Right now, probably the biggest obstacle for a player like Jack landing with the Falcons is simply that he’ll get drafted earlier than when the Falcons pick eight months from now. But at least after Friday night’s game there’s a slightly higher chance than before that the Falcons might pass on Jack because they already have a competent man in the middle. It will be up to Worrilow to continue to show improvement throughout the rest of the year to become that man.