The word continuity was mentioned often in the immediate aftermath of the Falcons’ 7-9 season that ended without a playoff berth for the second consecutive season. After electing to fire every coordinator from the 2018 staff and take on additional responsibilities himself, head coach Dan Quinn decided that a 2020 turnaround would have greater odds if most of the coaches he had in place — who helped the team finish with a 6-2 record after a disastrous 1-7 start — returned for another year.
While Quinn wants to keep the vast majority of assistants by his side, he did part ways with defensive passing game coordinator Jerome Henderson and assistant defensive line coach Travis Jones. To replace Henderson, Quinn hired Joe Whitt Jr. to serve the exact same job. Replacing Jones on staff is Tosh Lupoi, who will coach defensive ends while holding a defensive run game coordinator title.
Whitt has vast NFL coaching experience that dates to 2007 when he first entered the league as an assistant with the Falcons under former head coach Bobby Petrino. Lupoi’s experience mostly has been in the college ranks, with 2019 being his first in the NFL. Whitt and Lupoi were on the same staff in Cleveland this season.
While there is a vacancy at tight ends coach following Mike Mularkey’s decision to retire — with offensive assistant and former Tampa Bay tight ends coach Ben Steele being a prime candidate for that position — it would seem any new openings would arise from an assistant on staff leaving for another job. For now, here’s a look at how Whitt and Lupoi’s additions should affect the coaching staff for the 2020 season.
Whitt’s role with the secondary
The bulk of Whitt’s career in the NFL has been as a cornerbacks coach. While he holds a defensive passing game coordinator title, it’s easy to assume the bulk of his responsibilities will be with the corners on Atlanta’s defense. But nothing has been revealed publicly just about the coaching setup in the back end.
What is known is that Raheem Morris, who went from receivers coach to defensive backs coach (with an emphasis on cornerbacks) will be the defensive coordinator. This should imply that Morris, while he probably will remain involved with the cornerbacks to a degree, will spread his time to all positions. When Morris started spending more time with the cornerbacks, Doug Mallory moved from cornerbacks to safeties. Therefore, an educated guess would be that Mallory will remain coaching the safeties while Whitt coaches the cornerbacks.
While the secondary wasn’t getting the appropriate coaching through the first half of the 2019 season, hence Morris’ move from offense to defense, the coaching staff probably will feel comfortable with Whitt based on his expertise.
After Petrino’s failure in 2007, Whitt took a quality control job with the Green Bay Packers in 2008. When head coach Mike McCarthy was hired by the Packers a year later, he retained Whitt and made him the cornerbacks coach. Whitt stayed with McCarthy during his entire tenure in Green Bay. In four of 10 seasons under McCarthy, the Packers finished in the top 10 in passing yards allowed.
2009: fifth, 201.1 passing yards per game
2010: fifth, 194.2 passing yards per game
2011: 32nd, 299.8 passing yards per game
2012: 11th, 218.2 passing yards per game
2013: 24th, 247.2 passing yards per game
2014: 10th, 226.4 passing yards per game
2015: sixth, 227.6 passing yards per game
2016: 31st, 269.2 passing yards per game
2017: 23rd, 236.8 passing yards per game
2018: 12th, 234.5 passing yards per game
With the Browns in 2019, Whitt’s secondary finished seventh in the NFL by allowing 216.9 passing yards per game. That gives him five top-10 showings in the past 11 seasons.
The area where Atlanta hopes Whitt’s addition helps the most is with takeaways. While the Falcons tied for 17th with 12 interceptions during the 2019 regular season, that number was backlogged during the final eight games. In the first eight, Desmond Trufant totaled two picks, and that was it for the entire team.
With Green Bay, Whitt’s secondaries were known for picking off passes. In seven of his 10 seasons with McCarthy, the Packers finished in the top 10 in interceptions.
2009: first, 30 interceptions
2010: second, 24 interceptions
2011: first, 31 interceptions
2012: eighth (tie), 18 interceptions
2013: 26th (tie), 11 interceptions
2014: seventh (tie), 18 interceptions
2015: ninth, 16 interceptions
2016: fourth (tie), 17 interceptions
2017: 20th (tie), 11 interceptions
2018: 29th (tie), seven interceptions
This season, the Browns, with Whitt having the defensive passing game coordinator title, tied for eighth with 14 interceptions.
With the Packers, Whitt coached Charles Woodson, Al Harris, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, which certainly would aid any position coach. And with Cleveland, he worked with Denzel Ward.
The Falcons definitely will have young cornerbacks Kendall Sheffield and Isaiah Oliver in the fold for the 2020 season. Desmond Trufant’s future isn’t as clear, as he could be a salary-cap casualty. But regardless of who is in the defensive backs’ room, Whitt should be a positive presence for a team looking to create more turnovers.
Lupoi’s role with the defensive line
While the secondary coaches aren’t as defined just yet, Lupoi’s role is clear. He did receive a fancy title — defensive run game coordinator — but his primary focus will be to coach the defensive ends. This season’s defensive line coach, Jess Simpson, now will focus on coaching the defensive tackles.
While Lupoi did receive a defensive run game title, it seems fairly evident that a big part of his responsibilities will be to improve his group’s pass rush. In 2019, the Falcons finished 29th with only 28 sacks, and 21 of those sacks came during the final eight games. But even if that number could have been extrapolated for the entire year, the Falcons would have finished 15th with 42 sacks. So there is still plenty of improvement to take place for the Falcons to get where they want to be in this department.
Lupoi’s next-level coaching career began in 2008, when he became California’s defensive line coach. During his four years with the program, he coached future pros Cameron Jordan and Tyson Alualu. At Cal, 15.5 of Jordan’s 16.5 sacks came with Lupoi leading his position group. Alualu recorded 7.5 sacks during his final season at Cal in 2009.
From Cal, Lupoi went to Washington to work for then-head coach Steve Sarkisian as the defensive run game coordinator/defensive line coach. Two standout players Lupoi coached were Hau’oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton. In 2013, Kikaha, an edge rusher, recorded 12.5 sacks and Shelton, a defensive tackle, totaled 50 tackles and a sack. After 2013, Lupoi left Washington with a settlement after he was investigated for paying for a player’s tutoring and online classes. An NCAA investigation, however, cleared Lupoi, who then took a defensive analyst role at Alabama during the early 2014 offseason. A year later in 2015, Lupoi was elevated to outside linebackers coach, with 22.5 of the Crimson Tide’s 53 sacks that season coming from his position group. Lupoi was subsequently elevated to co-defensive coordinator. In 2018, he became the team’s primary defensive coordinator.
At a place like Alabama, rushing the passer with the talent available was relatively easy. Even so, during his time with the Crimson Tide, outside linebackers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson saw significant jumps once Lupoi took over the position group. Williams went from 1.5 sacks in 2013 and 2014 to 18.5 sacks during his final two years. Anderson went from 4.5 sacks in 2013 and 2014 to 14.5 sacks in 2015 and 2016.
After the 2018 season, Lupoi left Alabama to be the Browns’ defensive line coach. While Myles Garrett totaled 10 sacks in 10 games, the team totaled 30, which ranked 20th in the NFL. In his new job, the Falcons will hope that Lupoi putting his sole focus on the defensive ends will lead to greater production in the sack department. Having two experienced assistants on the defensive line, in theory, should further free up Quinn to focus on the bigger picture as the head coach.
Now, considering Lupoi was given a defensive run game coordinator title, here’s a look at how Lupoi’s fronts have fared against the run in the college ranks.
2008 at California as defensive line coach: 25th nationally, 122.2 rushing yards per game
2009 at California as defensive line coach: 23rd nationally, 112.0 rushing yards per game
2010 at California as defensive line coach: 35th nationally, 132.1 rushing yards per game
2011 at California as defensive line coach: 34th nationally, 128.7 rushing yards per game
2012 at Washington as defensive run game coordinator: 62nd nationally, 160.1 rushing yards per game
2013 at Washington as defensive run game coordinator: 61st, 161.3 rushing yards per game
2014 at Alabama as defensive analyst:fourth nationally, 102.4 rushing yards per game
2015 at Alabama as outside linebackers coach: first nationally, 75.7 rushing yards per game
2016 at Alabama as co-defensive coordinator: first nationally, 63.9 rushing yards per game
2017 at Alabama as co-defensive coordinator: second nationally, 95.7 rushing yards per game
2018 at Alabama as defensive coordinator: 19th nationally, 122.0 rushing yards per game
In his first NFL stop as a defensive line coach, the Browns ranked 30th by allowing 144.7 yards per game.
In the college ranks, Lupoi held a reputation for being an elite recruiter. While that skill doesn’t directly translate to the NFL ranks, he should provide a relatable personality to the players he will be coaching.
While Lupoi has shown the ability to coach up quality talent as a college assistant, Atlanta will hope he can help elevate the team’s defensive ends heading into the 2020 season.