Shortly before 2:30 p.m., Dan Quinn walks into his scheduled defensive coaches meeting, where his eight assistants will break down the day’s practice film with him. The fourth voluntary organized team activity practice was completed earlier that day, with a handful of assistants scarfing down the remaining bites of lunch at the table.
Upon Quinn’s arrival, six of the assistants — defensive line coach Jess Simpson, senior assistant Bob Sutton, defensive backs coach Doug Mallory, assistant defensive line coach Travis Jones, defensive assistant Aden Durde and defensive assistant Chad Walker — already are seated. Shortly thereafter, linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich and defensive passing game coordinator Jerome Henderson walk in.
With the lights still on, the mood is chipper and upbeat. Quinn speaks with Ulbrich about a play from practice, on which running back Devonta Freeman hit the defense for a big gain down the field. Then the two briefly discuss another play and whether it should be tweaked to highlight De’Vondre Campbell’s attributes.
With everyone seated and ready to work, the chatter dies down.
“You guys ready to hit it?” Quinn asks. “Let’s get rockin’.”
The lights turn off, and Quinn becomes the maestro, sitting at the head of the table with a small remote in his hand. The meeting room itself isn’t fancy. On the second floor of the Falcons’ facility and down the hall from Quinn’s office, it’s essentially a small conference room. Notably, the entire right side of the room is a whiteboard, from floor to ceiling. Written at the top of the board are the installations of each OTAs practice. This particular day was Wednesday, May 29, meaning the Falcons had just gone through their fourth session.
The defense installed 12 packages — 10 in the nickel and two in the dime. Looking at the wall, it’s clear the coaches are expecting the players to absorb a great deal of knowledge during the three weeks. Each day involves new sets to install until the final practice. Following OTAs, a selection of these plays will carry over into mandatory minicamp. Then it’s up to each individual player to keep up to speed by the time training camp begins.
As the practice film, displayed on a giant monitor, begins, the coaches’ focus zeroes in on the screen, to see if there was anything missed in real time.
“Power,” one coach exclaims after a play.
“That’s a better fit,” another says.
The intricate dynamic between the coaches is on display, with the different position coaches pointing out what went well and what failed, almost simultaneously. Quinn, never too animated but not one to hold back, seems intent on doing a lot of listening.
Two phrases are familiar throughout: “Tag, tag, tag” and “Track, track, track.” Tag, meaning a defender must show intent when closing the distance between himself and the ball carrier. Players tag instead of tackle during practice to ensure safety. But if they let off too early, they didn’t finish the play. That’s an important area of emphasis, especially for young players.
Track is a term to describe how a defender fundamentally sizes up a ball carrier. Once a running back or receiver is in the open field, it becomes a leverage game for the tackler. Depending on the angle, the defender must maintain left-shoulder or right-shoulder leverage with his tackle. He also must track the ball carrier’s nearest hip to ensure that if he was making a tackle, he would be able to drive through him.
The first instance of these phrases come not long into the practice film viewing. A linebacker let up too early and didn’t properly tag the offensive player.
Soon after, another play catches Mallory’s eye and not in a good way.
“Ugh, can we see that one more time?” Mallory asks.
It wasn’t that a player missed an assignment. But based on the play the offense was running, the coaches start deliberating whether any changes to the defensive play should be made. Based on the verbiage and terms used, it is, at times, difficult to follow exactly what the coaches are saying to one another. With that in mind, here is an example of the coaches deciphering a play and whether it needs a tweak or not.
“He really should stay back,” Henderson says. “He went to play the reaction. … He should take him going back. His guy, that’s an under. He could stay over here and take the back.”
“Who would take it coming back all the way on the ‘ghost?’” Quinn asks.
“The other player over here, the hooker on this side,” Henderson says.
“Let’s put that one down,” Quinn says. “We’ll have to go through that again.”
Mallory then asks Sutton, a recent hire who was most recently the defensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, for his input.
“Bob, how did y’all do that?” Mallory inquires.
“We would have a little different alignment there,” Sutton says. “We would have rocked one (safety) back.”
As the coaches move from this particular play, Ulbrich’s voice is one that starts to sound more often, especially in a stream of consciousness. His energy is evident, whether the play is a highlight or a stinker.
“Good burst, great job there,” Ulbrich says. “Now finish!”
Shortly after seeing the offense hit some plays in succession, he laughs and says, “These are Dirk (Koetter’s) plays, man.”
Then comes one of the most obvious observations of the day, about rookie cornerback Kendall Sheffield, who was recently cleared to practice following a pectoral injury.
“That *********** is fast!” Ulbrich says.
Another one of Sheffield’s highlights comes up soon while defending a receiver out of the nickel. It receives a couple of rewinds, with almost every coach’s eyes bulging while watching Sheffield stop on a dime with the receiver he is guarding, giving zero inches of space in the process.
“Yeah, that is good coverage,” Quinn says. “Man, he can stop. That’s pretty good.”
“Pretty good,” Mallory says. “Pretty good athlete.”
But like with anything, a good play in football can be followed by a bad one. Not long after Sheffield’s celebration commenced, a play pops up with fullback Ricky Ortiz catching a pass out of the backfield.
Ortiz jukes a defender, turns upfield and earns some extra yardage. From the snap, the coaches groan, as if the play was doomed from the start. By the end, Quinn expresses how unimpressed he was.
“That’s terrible,” he says.
In other words, the defensive play was horse manure.
Occasionally, such as in that instance, Quinn will inject his brand of humor into the meeting.
The head coach, who is doubling as the defensive coordinator, watches one play on which his unit fails with the pass rush.
“Who’s coaching the pass rush?” Quinn says. “Oh, ****, that’s me.”
After his self-deprecating joke, however, Quinn points out that the defensive line is unable to properly set an edge. That makes it incredibly tough for the defensive tackle in the middle, who is eaten alive by multiple blockers.
“This can be a good one for me to hit on with the guys, the importance of edge and when you don’t have an edge, look how hard it is for him,” Quinn says. “It makes life so hard on him.”
As the tape continues, the coaches start discussing how to better position the players. Quinn uses a practice play to ask whether an edge defender should be in a crease or outside of it.
Quinn first throws it to Ulbrich, who says that if the bigger defender is in the crease, it becomes the cornerback’s edge, which seemingly wouldn’t be as ideal. Quinn then asks Henderson for his input, and he says he would prefer for the edge defender to play outside of the crease.
“It closes that running lane for us down there,” Henderson says. “And then you get that ball guaranteed for a one-on-one tackle.”
After some additional input, Quinn asks Walker to prepare the play for a presentation he’d like to give to the defense.
“I can say that when the play is coming your way, this is how we’re going to play it, so the corner and everyone knows where we’re at,” Quinn says.
After the brief discussion, all the attention turns from the table back to the monitor.
Two plays involving running backs running wheel routes for big gains are on deck. One saw a back break wide open down the right sideline. The play produces a great deal of groaning from the room. No one accounts for the back, who breaks free without a soul in sight.
But while the play’s initial execution didn’t go so well, something caught Mallory’s eye as the other coaches are deliberating how to fix the initial mess-up.
“Good job, 34,” he says. “That’s a great track.”
No. 34 is safety Chris Cooper, who signed a two-year contract in April. Cooper spent the end of the 2018 season on the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice squad. This isn’t the first play that caught the coaches’ attention during the film session.
But with Mallory bringing it up, Quinn rewinds the play and takes a closer look at the young safety.
“Let’s get Coop some more reps,” Quinn says.
The next big play from a running back comes when Freeman beats a defensive end down the left sideline. Quinn points the finger at himself for the mishap. Later, after the film session ends, Quinn explains to The Athletic that the defensive end is coached to rush the passer but break off to take the running back if he’s coming free as a receiver. This is called a peel concept. But when doing so, the defensive end plays Freeman to prevent an angle route.
Freeman recognizes this and bolts toward the sideline and toward a bunch of green grass on a wheel. Matt Ryan lofts a perfect ball for a big gain.
“Oh, don’t look,” Quinn says, smiling but shaking his head. “Just like we coached him to do.”
The teaching moment for Quinn is to instruct the defensive ends to peel closer to the running back, to prevent the space a player like Freeman can gain in that situation.
Fifty-four minutes into the practice tape brought Quinn’s most emotional response. One of Atlanta’s defensive linemen is getting bested in a one-on-one block and doesn’t offer much of a counter move. Quinn doesn’t raise his voice but his tone suggests a higher level of disappointment.
“(He’s) all jacked up, holy ****,” Quinn says. “Let’s really challenge him. What are we doing now? He’s just getting blocked.”
One minute later, the same player is getting blocked in a similar manner again.
“Come on,” Quinn says. “Use the counter.”
Practice ends with a two-minute drill, which brings nearly the same ratio of cheers and jeers as the coaches study it. One important teaching moment during this series of plays is the need to tell a rookie cornerback that he must tag a player when he’s on the turf untouched. Russell Gage catches a first-down pass before hitting the ground without contact. The rookie corner nearest to the play doesn’t place a hand on him.
Around 67 minutes into the meeting, the film session is complete. The lights come back on, and Quinn goes over some final thoughts.
Mostly, he seems impressed with the defensive backs, including Sheffield and Desmond Trufant. Henderson acknowledges that Trufant has put forth a “great” offseason thus far.
Of course, the end talk isn’t all rosy. There is a defender Quinn and Henderson speak about whom they need to see improvement from.
“The one thing that he has is he’s extremely bright, but he’s not playing that way,” Henderson says. “He just goes out and goes, ‘OK, this is my guy.’ He doesn’t ever look at what the formation is and what information could I use to help me play. I told him that’s one area he should be a leader for us. Other guys should be looking at you.”
Quinn tells Henderson to get with Ulbrich, who previously put together a tape titled “Why?” The tape goes over the team’s defensive formations and the reasoning behind them. Quinn suggests getting the tape and showing it to the player.
“It might be something for you to show him why,” Quinn says. “Why this alignment, why this set, why this split? It’s a shame to have all this brainpower but not use it.”
“And I’ve been showing him the whys, really telling him the whys,” Henderson says. “Here’s the why, here’s what you need to think through, here’s what you need to see right here. I’ve got to do a better job of it.”
“It’s like the commercial with the kid, where they say, ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste,’” Quinn says. “I mean, don’t waste this chance. You have all this brainpower. I’d love to have that brainpower.”
With Day 4 executed and pored over, Quinn’s attention then starts to turn somewhat to Day 5. The Falcons are set to put in 17 total calls — 13 nickel, one dime, one base and two titled “explore.” As the other coaches leave the room, Walker retrieves the next day’s installation plan on paper for Quinn. Walker wants to show Quinn a play he saw another NFL team run this past season, which is similar to one Atlanta uses.
He walks over to the whiteboard wall and diagrams it in a matter of seconds. Walker explains the slight difference, in the foreign football language that Quinn easily comprehends.
As he ponders the play, Quinn seems intrigued with what Walker has scouted.
“Leave it up there,” he says. “We’ll revisit it.”
Thank you, sir. This isn't my best work. I just took the small, minor notes I had from the UDFA, and my opinions on our draft, and slapped it together. I would like to one day get a laptop to do this kind of stuff on. It sucks usig a phone lol. In a dream world, I would like to be the Atlanta falcons GM over anything in the world. Not any amount of money would change that. Realistically, I'd like to start my own website like Draft Network/Draft Countdown/Walterfootball and be invited on scouting trips to the combine and Senior Bowl to do something I'm more passionate about than anything, while also running a website that would make enough money to support myself.
Rico makes plays. They don’t come in a bunch of int’s but he makes so many more types of plays. Fans only call plays made turnovers. That’s not the only form of playmaking. Rico isn’t a ballhawk but he is a playmaker in his own right. Stopping a play from being a 1st down is a play made. Batting the ball away is a play made. Jarring the ball away from a runner is a play made. Teams also don’t throw in the seams all kinda ways with with Rico on the field. That’s the center fielders job. Contain the seam and anything deep. He can’t get looked off like kazee did by top qb’s like brees and Rodgers. Which forces the qb to dump the ball off to a back which Debo is waiting for. Add another penetrating DT like Oliver and the ball had to come out when quicker.
I think there are two types of DE's; that sinewy Brian Burns EDGE type and then a guy like Zach Allen or Omenihu type - a bit bulkier, but more of a base guy. I think a Zach Allen could be a possibility because if we are looking to beef up our line play, he fits that profile.
That's one of the reasons I like the trade-up scenario...the mid 20's seem a much riper place to get that additional target vs #45. The challenge will be finding a trade partner.
BPA on defense is what I am thinking . I saw somewhere on here that Dru Samia, a G that's projected to go in the 4th round is the perfect Zone guard. with this in mind, the first 3 picks I want to go towards impact players. If that means Miles Sanders in the 3rd or Bryce Love, lets go there. I loved the Ridley pick last year for that very reason. Make the team better and try to find depth in the later rounds!