Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – January 19, 2015

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsDan Quinn

One week ago, it seemed that the Atlanta Falcons were poised to hire either Todd Bowles or Teryl Austin as their new head coach. Quite a bit has changed over the past seven days.

Perhaps not too much changed besides Bowles opting to become the head coach of the New York Jets. Austin remains the second option in the Falcons’ hunt for a head coach. But instead of taking a back seat to Bowles, it is now Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.

Last week, I mused that I didn’t believe that the Falcons would wait until after the Super Bowl to hire Quinn. That was the main reason why a week ago I didn’t really buy into the reports that he was the leading candidate. Of course those reports proved true, as the Falcons allowed Austin to leave Atlanta this past Thursday without a contract.

Later today, the Falcons will conduct a second interview with Quinn, and all indications suggest that interview is merely a formality as the team looks to dot the i’s and cross the t’s before announcing Quinn as the 16th head coach in franchise history.

The Falcons won’t be able to officially announce Quinn until the Seahawks are eliminated from the playoffs, which we know won’t happen between now and February 1 due to their thrilling overtime win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.

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Dan Quinn

Quinn’s Defense Key Reason Why Seahawks Are Headed Back to Super Bowl

The Seahawks got down in an early hole, but climbed back into the game thanks in large part due to their defense. While most of the focus will be on the “clutch” throws and plays that quarterback Russell Wilson made in the final minutes of the game, it was really the defense that made the difference for the Seahawks in a 28-22 victory.

The early stops that the Seahawks defense achieved was what allowed them to come from behind. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy twice settled for field goals when given the opportunity to go for it on fourth down at the Seahawks’ one-yard line. Why? Because McCarthy didn’t want to risk not coming away with points trying to score touchdowns on the Seahawks. Simply put, McCarthy was more fearful of the Seahawks defense than he was confident in his own offense to gain a single yard.

The Packers settling for six points instead of 14, an eight-point swing was a critical difference in the game. Even if McCarthy had been successful in turning just one of those field goals into a touchdown could have resulted in a Packers win.

And that doesn’t even include the interception by Richard Sherman in the end zone that took more potential points off the board for the Packers on their opening drive.

The Packers dominated field position early in the game, with three of their first five drives starting inside Seahawks territory. There were two others in the first half that started at Green Bay’s 44-yard line. Yet the stalwart Seahawks defense only allowed a single touchdown on those five possessions where the Packers had shorter fields.

Does Quinn deserve the bulk of the credit for what has been the league’s best defense two years running? That’s difficult to say. While the Seahawks defense has reached peak heights under Quinn’s leadership, it’s difficult to say that he has been the architect of the defense. That credit probably should land at the feet of head coach Pete Carroll.

But there is no doubt that Quinn has been a key contributor and there should be even less doubt that he’s a very good coach. That’s evidenced by the fact that Quinn was one of just two assistant coaches that Carroll retained upon his arrival in Seattle in 2010.

Quinn left Seattle a year later to become the defensive coordinator at the University of Florida, his first taste of coordinating a defense. He took the lessons he honed in the Southeastern Conference and brought them to the NFL, forming one of the league’s most physical defenses the past two years.

The Seahawks defense succeeds in part because of its talent, yet I would not say they are the most talented group in the league. But they do have their fair share of physical and athletic specimens.

But the real key to their success is the blueprint that folks like Carroll, Quinn and his predecessor Gus Bradley have designed. The Seahawks have a clear scheme and they stick to it.

Legion of Boom Key For Seahawks Defensive Success

The highlight of their defense is certainly their secondary, nicknamed the “Legion of Boom.” They have the league’s premier free safety and centerfielder in Earl Thomas. There is no doubt that Thomas is extremely talented. He’s the rare safety that you could trust to cover receivers, but what truly makes Thomas special is his ball skills and range. He’s on par with future Hall of Famer Ed Reed in that regard.

Thomas’ presence makes it a lot easier for the corners on the outside. The Seahawks play a lot of Cover-3 and press man. When you trust that the safety on the back end can keep passes from going over his head, you can afford to be more physical at the line of scrimmage. That’s where players like Sherman, Brandon Browner, Walter Thurmond, Byron Maxwell, Tharold Simon and Jeremy Lane have specialized in.

The Seahawks have acquired big, physical corners that aren’t your traditional cover corners. It’s why none of them were high picks since they don’t have the traditional “mirroring” skills that teams look for in cornerbacks. But that’s not what they’re asked to do. Their ability to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage is really effective at throwing off the timing of opposing offenses. History has shown us that teams that can get physical and mix it up at the line of scrimmage give the elite quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning the most problems.

Quinn Deserves Credit for Formidable Seahawks Pass Rush

The other thing that gives those quarterbacks a lot of problems is a formidable pass rush. And the Seahawks have possessed exactly that under Quinn. We can certainly give Quinn a bit more credit for that given his former role as the defensive line coach.

In 2011 and 2012 while Quinn was at Florida, the Seahawks tallied 69 sacks on 1,176 dropbacks by opposing quarterbacks. That works out to be a sack rate of 5.9 percent. Over the past two years, the Seahawks defense has combined for 81 sacks on 1,112 opposing dropbacks. That works out to be a sack rate of 7.3 percent. That represents a 24 percent increase that coincides with Quinn’s return to the northwest.

Quinn deserves a lot of credit for that improvement, but one cannot overlook the free-agent additions the Seahawks have made. They can thank the additions of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in 2013 as big reasons for that increased sack production. Avril and Bennett just have been better edge-rushers than the likes of Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin and Raheem Brook were in those previous years.

The ability to get pressure with just four rushers can really separate the men from the boys in the NFL. It’s often a hallmark of the best defenses throughout league history. The Seahawks have placed an emphasis on getting players that can provide pressure, particularly along the edge with drafting Irvin in the first round, trading for Clemons and signing players like Avril and Bennett. The same cannot be said for the Falcons over the years, and it should be no surprise that the Falcons pass rush has suffered accordingly.

Combined with their speed off the edge, the Seahawks are stout up the middle. Brandon Mebane is the anchor of a group of big, physical defensive tackles. They’ve employed a steady rotation of players beside him including Tony McDaniel, Kevin Williams, Clinton McDonald, Red Bryant and Jordan Hill over recent years. Most earn their paychecks primarily by stuffing the run, but each have just enough quickness to provide occasional pressure on the quarterback if need be.

With the horses up front and the playmakers on the back end, the middle of the Seahawks defense is basically full of guys that can run and hit. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner highlights the group as he is a physical run defender with the range to make plays all over the field. He gets a lot of help from strong safety Kam Chancellor who functions well both in coverage against tight ends, but is also an enforcer against the run.

Outside linebackers like Malcolm Smith and K.J. Wright are top athletes that can cover space and pick up the trash that Wagner and Chancellor do not. And with Irvin taking a back seat to Avril and Bennett up front, he’s really blossomed the past two years at outside linebacker, showing a lot more prowess in coverage thanks in part to his athletic gifts.

Essentially the Seahawks’ defensive blueprint features a wide range of players, including pass-rushers and run-stuffers up front, athletic and rangy linebackers that can cover space and receivers, and a physical and athletic group of playmakers in the secondary.

Quinn will be tasked with building the same in Atlanta. It’s a feat that can be done, but will likely take time as the Falcons defense currently doesn’t feature many of these required pieces.

One of the hallmarks of the Seahawks has been their desire to play to the strengths of their players. Their defensive players fit easily within their scheme, although it poses the classic riddle of which came first: the scheme or the talent? Did the Seahawks design a scheme and then acquired the players that fit it? Or did they acquire talent and crafted a scheme around it? I tend to think it’s the latter given the Seahawks’ tendency to target a similar type of player at certain positions.

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Desmond Trufant (left) and Robert Alford

Falcons Secondary is Strength to Build Around

When Quinn eventually surveys the Falcons defensive roster, he’ll likely notice that similar to what it is in Seattle, Atlanta’s secondary is their most promising component. The Falcons feature two young cornerbacks with bright futures in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. While Trufant and Alford aren’t afraid to mix it up with receivers, they probably wouldn’t be considered the caliber of press corners that Sherman, Browner and Maxwell have been.

The Falcons also have a pair of solid veteran safeties in William Moore and Dwight Lowery. Moore and Lowery have similarities, but aren’t quite the same as Chancellor and Thomas at safety. But they do similarly complement each other in multiple ways. Moore is a rangy, formidable run defender that tends to struggle in man coverage, which happens to be Lowery’s greatest strength. Lowery would be somewhat miscast as a centerfielder in the same role as Thomas, and instead should function more as an extra cornerback in the box.

Can Quinn take these pieces and construct a scheme around them that highlights their strengths and obscures their weaknesses? Certainly, but it really all starts up front. The bottom line is that if the Falcons can create pressure with just four players up front, then what occurs on the back end becomes far more inconsequential.

The hope is that Quinn’s staff can continue to develop young defensive linemen like Jonathan Massaquoi, Ra’Shede Hageman and Stansly Maponga and turn them into playmakers, along with linebackers Paul Worrilow, Prince Shembo and Joplo Bartu. While most should improve under the new regime, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will turn into assets comparable to those found in Seattle. The hard to swallow truth may be that the players that will ultimately become Atlanta’s versions of Clemons, Avril, Mebane, Wagner, Irvin and Bennett may not currently be on the roster.

Will Falcons Be Patient With Defensive Rebuilding?

And if that proves to be the case, then the Falcons defensive overhaul is likely to take time. Early on the Seahawks built via the draft, finding several mid and late-round gems that other teams didn’t put much of a premium on. When the Seahawks made forays into free agency, most of their success didn’t require them to spend a ton of money. They got Avril and Bennett on bargain deals in 2013.

Will the Falcons seek to do the same? That will be something to watch moving forward. Falcons owner Arthur Blank might not prove as patient as Paul Allen, his counterpart in Seattle.

The stadium that is now called CenturyLink Field was nearly a decade old when Carroll and general manager John Schneider arrived in 2010. Contrastingly, the Falcons are in the midst of building a new stadium and are in the process of trying to sell expensive personal seat licenses to it.

Carroll led the Seahawks to a pair of 7-9 records during his first two seasons in Seattle. That was largely due to very underwhelming quarterback play from the likes of Matt Hasselbeck, Charlie Whitehurst and Tarvaris Jackson in those years. Then the Seahawks managed to nab Wilson in the third round of the 2012 draft, made the audacious move to start him over Matt Flynn and the rest is history.

Frankly, if the Falcons finish 7-9 next season under Quinn, it will be an extremely underwhelming start for his regime. Unlike the Seahawks during the early days of Carroll, the Falcons already have their franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan. Fair or not, Quinn will be expected to make the playoffs in 2015.

And such a push for the postseason and the need to put butts in seats will likely prompt the Falcons to be a bit more active in free agency than the Seahawks have traditionally been under Schneider and Carroll.

Yet, hopefully the Falcons don’t go too far down that path. While the team will have plenty of money to spend should they choose to, the Falcons have to realize that championships cannot be bought. This truth can be easily overlooked when free agents like Ndamukong Suh, Darrelle Revis, Julius Thomas, DeMarco Murray, Randall Cobb, Mike Iupati and Jason Pierre-Paul could potentially hit the open market.

For a team as talent-starved as the Falcons appeared to be in 2014, signing any one of those players would be the bold, splash signing that Blank is looking for to get the fan base abuzz.

Nevertheless, there is a right way and a wrong way of building teams and the Seahawks have done it the right way. That has featured a focus on drafting guys known for their top athleticism, as opposed to concentrating on high character guys that were team captains in college as the Falcons have routinely done.

In free agency, the Seahawks made a big splash by trading for Percy Harvin a year ago but that quickly went sour. Other expensive forays into free agency such as signing wide receiver Sidney Rice and tight end Zach Miller didn’t net hugely positive results either.

Two of their better moves involved trading fourth-round picks separately for Marshawn Lynch and Clemons in 2010. Given their respective returns on investment, both trades were huge windfalls for the Seahawks. As previously mentioned, both Avril and Bennett signed for relative pennies in comparison to contracts to some of the Falcons recent contracts.

Falcons Front Office Could Learn Lessons From Seahawks

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Seahawks GM John Schneider is arguably the best in the business

Not only can the Falcons learn lessons from Quinn in terms of coaching, but could certainly benefit from borrowing a page from the Seahawks front office. The Seahawks have never been shy when it comes to making a move if they thought it would help the team. The decision to dump Harvin this past year exemplified this. There are no sacred cows in Seattle like there have been in Atlanta.

Back in 2012 when a rookie third-round pick in Wilson outplayed Flynn during training camp, the Seahawks didn’t hesitate to plug Wilson into the starting lineup Week 1. That came after signing Flynn to a multi-year contract that guaranteed him $10 million. Had the Falcons been in their shoes, would they have made that bold move? Probably not, since Falcons history tends to suggest that playing time is parceled out based upon paycheck.

The trade that brought Lynch to Seattle was a midseason move back in 2010. To free up room for Lynch, the Seahawks dumped Julius Jones, who had been their leading rusher the two previous years. Jones wasn’t getting the job done, and they made the move to get Lynch because they thought he could. When have the Falcons ever looked to make a bold move midseason? They’ve had more than their fair share of guys not getting the job done the past two years on their way to a 10-22 record, yet the team stood pat when the trade deadline approached.

Clearly, not every decision the Seahawks made proved to be fruitful as evidenced by the revolving door at quarterback that saw them peg Charlie Whitehurst, Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Flynn as their franchise quarterback before ultimately succeeding with Wilson. But to use a baseball analogy, their success has been less contingent on a high percentage of hitting the ball, and more about their willingness to take several swings. If a move doesn’t work out, then they move onto the next one. In contrast, the Falcons have had an antithetical approach throughout the years where Thomas Dimitroff has been the team’s general manager.

I’ll once again emphasize a point I’ve been trying to make in these takeaways columns nearly every week for the past several months. The Falcons’ recent struggles are merely because of poor coaching. That certainly is a significant part of the equation, but it doesn’t end there. Every individual in the entire organization from the top down, is going to have to take a hard look in the mirror and ask what steps are each of them taking to make this football team better.

The hiring of a new coach is the shock to the system that the entire organization needs that signals that business as usual has been very bad business. It starts with the arrival of Quinn in two weeks, but hopefully it won’t end there.

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Aaron Freeman
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