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How the Falcons Defense Became Dominant Part III: The Second(ary) Coming


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Taking Flight : How the Falcons Defense Became Dominant

Inspired by the fantastic work of Ken Burns, especially his series "The National Parks" I have decided to compose a 4 part documentary-style article detailing how the Atlanta Falcons obtained a Top 5 defense within the span of a single year. I broke it down to defensive line, linebacker, secondary, and overall scheme. It is a story of a GM's vision, a string of offseason decisions, each less obvious than the prior one, yet each devastatingly effective.

Part III: The Second(ary) Coming

In 1989 The Atlanta Falcons drafted Deion Sanders, perhaps the most talented cornerback to ever play in the league. Twenty years later, he was long gone, along with Ray Buchanan, and even Deangelo Hall. Twenty years later, the Falcon's best cornerback, Brian Williams went down for the season, and his replacements were Chris Houston, Christopher Owens, Chevis Jackson, and Tye Hill. They were young, and it showed.

The very first game they played minus their injured starting corner, they hemmoraged 311 yards through the air, allowing Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo to complete 21 out of 29 passes, achieving a passer rating of 141.6.

"From the moment the season began, my biggest concern about our defense was the secondary, or specifically our cornerbacks. If we broke down in coverage, I knew we'd be forced into a lot of shootouts, something I didn't think our young quarterback in Matt Ryan was quite ready to handle on a week to week basis. That Cowboys game really put me on notice as to how much of a liability our pass defense really was. If we are truly going to design our defense around stopping Brees, like Tennessee designed theirs to stop Peyton Manning, we would really need better play against the pass."

And so, for the third time, the Engineer went to work.

"I really asked myself some difficult questions as to what I could do, and would be willing to do, to bring in some talent to our secondary. I was satisfied with the play of our safeties, given the circumstances, but I really desired a top-flight talent at cornerback, someone who had the potential to evolve into a true shut-down player."

And then, Thomas Dimitroff came to a radical conclusion, one that challenged many established beliefs about player development, and football in general.

"I came to conclude that it would be possible to create a legitimate starting cornerback, instead of drafting one early in the draft. I looked at the NFL, and what it really took to be successful at a position, and I determined that experience playing the position was important but not overwhelmingly important. I found that the gap seperating athlete from quality player was absolutely widest for playing quarterback, and absolutely smallest for playing defensive back. Even quarterback, with all of the mental elements of the game required to play it, had seen Kurt Warner, who at one time stocked shelves in a grocery store after college, go on to the Superbowl multiple times, and Matt Cassel, who had not started a game since high school, go on to pass for more than 400 yards on multiple occasions in an NFL season."

At this point Dimitroff becomes visibly animated as he recounts the stroke of genius he had experienced.

"When I looked at the cornerback position, I saw a job on a defense that involved skills that are the least unique to football. At it's core, it is running with a guy, and preventing him from catching a football. And I knew for a fact that there were plenty of guys all across the country who could flat out run."

To find the athletes he was searching for, he created a profile in the mold of the best players at the position.

" I looked at Champ Bailey, who didn't play exclusively at cornerback in college, and Nnamdi Asomugha, who played safety in college but was moved to cornerback after he was drafted. I looked at the things they shared in common to seek out in my cornerback prospects. First of all, they have loose hips and can run, with both having enough speed to cover their man. Secondly, they are tall, with Champ at 6 ft. and Nnamdi at 6 ft. 2, and thirdly, they are incredibly smart. When you talk to Champ about football, he knows just as much as the quarterbacks he is facing on Sunday, and Nnamdi sounds more like a college professor than most players I know. The most important thing of all, though, that separates these guys from the majority of the cornerbacks in the NFL is their work ethic. They are both notorious for putting in the work in the weight and film room, leaving no stone uncovered, and really being the most prepared guys on their side of the ball. And I really think that is key." he says.

"In my opinion, a bad cornerback can hurt you worse than just about any other position on the defense. I'd actually take a bad quarterback vs. two elite cornerbacks rather than have one bad cornerback vs. an elite quarterback. At least with the bad QB, you can hand off the ball, or throw away from the corner. A bad cornerback will ALWAYS be a target. Given how incredibly important their job is, I don't think it is acceptable for them to simply practice as much as the other players on defense, they should be working harder, certainly harder than the wide recievers they will face on Sundays, and possibly as much as the quarterback they will face on Sunday as well."

After finding what traits he would look for in his prospects, he then determined what type of athletes he would focus on.

"We decided we would stick to football players, guys who have actually been on a team and put on the pads before. We would put our highest priority on finding guys who already play cornerback in college, but we would also take a look at college safeties and even some wide-outs. The focus was placed to the corner, since he already has experience turning and running and playing his man. What we liked about safties though is they often have the greatest understanding of the offense they are playing out of anybody in the secondary, and are used to being good decision-makers. What we liked about receivers is that playing cornerback is playing against receivers running routes, and who better understands the tendencies and routes of a receiver than a former receiver himself ?

Thus, the Engineer's scouts went out into the world, to search for the men who would become cornerbacks.

"We focused heavily on guys from big programs, as they often sign the best talent, and more specifically those teams that run a spread offense, as the players on that defense usually spend a great deal in practice defending the multitude of routes they employ in those offenses. We took a good look at players who were track stars in high school, and maybe still ran it college"

"We also looked at their GPA, SAT and ACT scores," Dimitroff adds, in a tone of absolute sincerity.

His scouts searched far and wide, stopwatch in one hand, and SAT print-outs clinched in another. They found three guys who fit their profile, perfect combination of size, speed, intelligence and work ethic.

Call them Larry, Curly, and Moe.

"Hey that was my second idea, I wanted to go with Groucho, Chico and Harpo, but they didn't know what the heck I was talking about" admits their coach.

I'm talking to their coach, who has asked that I refer to him only as Coach, in this article. I'm speaking to him over the phone, because they aren't in the Flowery Branch right now. They're not even in the country, as they have been in Canada for months, but more on that later.

"This program really isn't for the faint of heart, what these boys have to accomplish in one year is monumental, so it is appropriate that the intensity of our practices are on the level of the U.S. Special Forces. We break these guys down repeatedly, mentally and physically taxing them, so we can build them back up the right way."

"We just call it Fight Club" says "Larry", the only of the three to come to the Falcons as a draft pick.

"In the early days, there was a whole lot of puking, a whole lot of dragging yourself into the bed at night."

"We started off the program with an intense regime of running these guys into the ground. We wanted them to be conditioned to run at full capacity for all four quarters. From there, we worked on defending routes, which comprised the majority of their training. We had them doing coverage drills for every route, hundreds of times. We captured them on film, and spent a good amount of time breaking down every aspect of a wide receivers game. I slowed down footage of guys like Moss, guys like Steve Smith, and how to be aware of their tendencies. After a strong foundation in man coverage, we introduced them to the zone, and taught them how to make the decision, risk-reward, between trying to get the tackle, trying to bat down the pass, and trying to make the pick "

"He actually duct-taped our fingers together" laughs Larry. "He said he didn't want us to even think about trying to intercept a ball before we had mastered how to bat it away from any angle, and from any body position."

To that end, Coach uses tackling dummies, lots of them.

"I like to use ones that are actually in the shape of people, needless to say, I get a few looks when I'm carrying one around in a bag" jokes Coach

"I position the dummies in a variety of positions, and place the ball on them, so my guys can practice breaking on the ball vs. figures that more resembles the human body, and breaking up the catch while using good form on the tackle."

One breathing tackling dummy, is 5th round draft pick and practice squad member David Gettis, who did not make the trip to Canada.

"I was drafted because I think the team liked my potential, but I can't help but think they also liked me because I was a good body for those guys to practice defending. Me, Weems (receiver Eric Weems), and JP (quarterback John-Parker Wilson) spent a lot of time training with those guys, and I think we got a lot out of it as well. Even before they left I could tell those guys were gonna be good."

"With Larry being our biggest cornerback, at 6 ft. 2, after his general training we have been specifically tailoring his game to defending the big physical receivers like Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Marques Colston. Those are the routes he is working to bolster his expertise on, and David was invaluable in that regard over the summer. Moe, who played free safety in college, is the same at 6 ft. 1, so he benefited a lot from that too, and he able to get in some good work with Harry Douglas, who is a great young receiver coming back from his injury last year. Curly is 5 ft. 10, so we have been tailoring his game to covering the smaller, incredibly agile receivers of the league like Wes Welker, Steve Smith and Lance Moore. He plays so much bigger than he is though, so we are confident in him covering just about anybody when he's ready.

So what's up with the names?

"Our guys can't really consider themselves part of the Falcons yet at this moment, so I want them to earn seeing their names in print, when they first start making plays down in the Dome for the Falcons. It's a psychological thing, helps keep them hungry." states Coach

"Coach really does a thorough job" says Larry

"He even breaks down each route into sections, and what your responsibilities are during every part of it. There is a part close to the beginning where you look to see the number of steps the QB drops back, a part where you wait to see the receiver commit his hips to the given route or if he is faking, and even a part where you run with the receiver while getting a glance at the QB, to see where he is likely to throw it. At night we have a drill where we cover a receiver that is only red dot on the ground, from Coach's laser pointer. And let me tell you, it's embarrassing to get faked out by a laser pointer"

"My rule for them is to never be burned by the same player on the same route twice. As long as you are constantly learning, it is okay to mess up here and there. We want them to mess up so that we can correct it before they see the field in the NFL. Part of my job is just basic education, so we review everything we did during the day at night, since studies show it really helps retention to do some good studying a few hours before you go to sleep "

So what's up with Canada?

"I am proud to say that each of my guys was able to successfully obtain a one year agreement to play in the CFL. I was really determined that they feel what it is like to prepare with a team, week to week, and really experience the emotions of a big game. Say what you want about the level of talent up here, but there is a lot of pride on each of these squads, and they really give their all. A great thing for our guys as well is the fact that their receivers are all allowed to go in motion simultaneously, so it really forces a cornerback to make good decisions early in the play."

"It just feel great playing in a game after all these months of training, I really feel incredibly light as I'm on the field up here." states Larry

I'm sure Coach might know something about that.

"To be honest, the pads they practice in with me are about 10 to 15 pounds heavier than standard pads. Really forces them to rely on good technique instead of their amazing speed." he admits.

All of Coach's work, and his Three Stooge's success in the CFL has Thomas Dimitroff more thrilled than anything.

"Looking back on the choices our front office made during this off-season, I'm most proud of this one. Noticing a trend in the size and effectiveness of the Defensive Tackle position was fairly obvious. Coming up with a solution to answer the rise of the NFL's athletic tight ends was a somewhat logical conclusion as well. But to really break down the vital aspects of a whole position, and to get three guys who are already producing at such a high level, that's really outside-of-the box thinking, and something that has given my staff and me a great deal of confidence going forward."

Watching the turn-around the Falcons experienced on offense during Dimitroff's first year was exciting, with rookies Matt Ryan, Harry Douglas, and Sam Baker contributing in a major way in addition to free agent addition Micheal Turner. Watching the the turn around they have experienced on defense during the third year of the young GM's reign is scary, and should the promising experiments in Canada live up to their ability for the Falcons next season, his success might be considered down-right disturbing. It is true that with free agency and the draft, the NFL is a league of parity, but if one team's management is playing Chess, while everyone else is playing Checkers, is that really fair ?

"I still believe this team can get a lot better in many areas, and I'm going to continue to work diligently to secure my team the best possible chances for success" he says.

The GMs of the other 31 teams, fans of league parity, and perhaps even Roger Goodell himself, should hope the Engineer is lying.

It might be their only hope.

Part IV: A Scheme for All Seasons Will be posted later today.

Link to Part I

Link to Part II

Link to Part IV

Edited by PatYasinskasasasdf
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