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What we learned: Dan Quinn’s defense finally taking shape, Takk McKinley’s streak ends

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https://theathletic.com/1388332/2019/11/18/what-we-learned-dan-quinns-defense-finally-taking-shape-takk-mckinleys-streak-ends/

 

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sacks are starting to come in bunches. The coverage has tightened up, leading to four interceptions in the Falcons’ 29-3 blowout victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Suddenly, Atlanta’s defense resembles the defenses Dan Quinn previously has been associated with.

Before this sudden turn of events, a lot of debate surrounded this team about its 1-7 start. Was the poor start due to coaching? Or was it due to a perceived lack of talent at key positions?

When it comes to coaching, the argument was, and is, that any staff should have the players prepared for every single game, regardless of opponent. Players should be well-versed in their assignments and on point with their communication. If the preparation is right, the results will surely come on Sunday afternoons. If not, then the responsibility falls squarely with the coaching.

As it pertains to the talent level of the defense, when players are missing tackles, getting beat down the field or not paying close enough attention to detail in their communications, then perhaps it’s fair to wonder if they are good enough to get the job done. It’s not like Quinn’s scheme, which other NFL teams use variations of, is outdated. But if the players can’t execute it, then the scheme looks a lot worse than it actually is.

If the past two weeks are indicative of anything, it’s that the first-half-of-the-season coaching mistakes and player miscues on defense are in the midst of being rectified. Since the bye week, it has looked like an entirely different defense.

Quite honestly, everyone involved deserves to share the blame for the 1-7 record. That start is likely to keep the Falcons from reaching the postseason, barring a miraculous turn of events in either the NFC Wild-Card race (the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings must lose out) or in the NFC South (the New Orleans Saints would need to go 1-5 during the next six games, with another loss to Atlanta helping matters).

During the 1-7 stretch, much was made about Quinn’s defense no longer working. And after last week’s win over New Orleans, a lot of people wanted to place praise on linebackers Jeff Ulbrich and defensive backs coach Raheem Morris for their role in sharing play-calling duties. The fact is that play-calling was divvied up among assistants dating back to Atlanta’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals. So the defense still was failing to produce in games against the Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks after Quinn gave up this responsibility.

While not much worked in the first eight games, Atlanta has found some positive results, finally, in the past two.

While the Panthers have mostly a one-dimensional offense that runs just about everything through Christian McCaffrey, it’s hard to argue that Atlanta’s defensive performance against the Saints wasn’t a great example of what Quinn’s defense is supposed to look like. Quinn’s defense is simple with what it’s trying to accomplish. First and foremost, the defense is geared to stop the run. Second, when teams pass, the ball always is in front of the defense. Third, the defense is to do everything to prevent yards after the catch. Once a pass is completed, converge on the tackle.

These past two weeks have seen this take place.

Quinn’s defenses aren’t going to necessarily be low in yardage total. But the objective is to make the opposing offense’s drives difficult. Since the second half of Atlanta’s game against Seattle, the Falcons have held teams to five field goals and zero touchdowns in the past 10 quarters. It took a lot of time, but it does appear the defense is finally beginning to jell.

“That’s what it looks like, since the second half of the Seahawks game we’ve been clicking pretty good,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “But I think it all starts with getting back to our process and sticking together, continuing to grind and never throwing in the towel.”

Speaking of sacks …

The Falcons had only seven sacks in the first eight games of the year. During the past two weeks, Atlanta has shocked the NFL by totaling 11 sacks. Six sacks came against New Orleans, and five more were accrued against Carolina.

On Sunday, Takk McKinley finally recorded his first solo sack of the season. Remember, McKinley made a bet with himself that he would cut off his beloved dreadlocks if he didn’t reach 10 sacks for the year. Time is beginning to run out, with McKinley only at 1.5 sacks for the season. This total, however, hasn’t been due to a lack of effort. McKinley continuously has played hard while showcasing his speed off the edge. But as quarterbacks found open receivers early in their progressions during the first eight games, there weren’t many opportunities to finish off sacks. As the coverage has improved the past two weeks, the defensive line, with that split second or half-second, is beginning to finally apply pressure on the quarterback.

As the season has progressed, and with McKinley unable to tally any solo sacks during the first nine games, he updated his Twitter bio to read, “A DE who almost gets sacks.” That changed after Sunday’s game. Almost immediately after Atlanta’s win, McKinley changed it to, “A DE who got a sack.”

At least McKinley has been able to find some humor with how his season has gone statistically. A great example of McKinley coming ever so close to a sack came Sunday in the first quarter when he beat his block quickly before wrapping up Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen. As McKinley prepared to bring him down, Allen threw the ball up for grabs to avoid the sack. It turned out for the best as De’Vondre Campbell picked off the ball.

But where there’s an almost-sack, there’s probably a McKinley tweet.

McKinley finally recorded his first solo sack near the end of the first quarter but injured his shoulder on the play. As he was bringing down Allen, offensive tackle Daryl Williams fell on top of him. McKinley didn’t speak to reporters after the game but did take exception with the play on Twitter.

 

This year, ESPN created a metric called pass rush win rate. While McKinley only has 1.5 sacks, he ranks third among edge defenders with a pass rush win rate of 31 percent. Only T.J. Watt and Robert Quinn rank better.

The pass rush win rate is based on how often a player is able to beat his block in 2.5 seconds or less. According to this tool, McKinley is among the league’s best at it. It just hasn’t correlated with big-number sacks. By comparison, Watt is third in the NFL with 10.5 sacks and Quinn is tied for seventh with 8.5.

While the numbers may not show it on the traditional stat sheet, McKinley has been disruptive.

Ridley’s success against Panthers continues

Right after his big day against the Panthers, receiver Calvin Ridley did an on-field interview with Falcons team reporter Kelsey Conway, who asked him about his two big games at Bank of America Stadium.

“I don’t know what it is about here, but I kind of live here, huh?” Ridley said.

Ridley was called upon quite a bit Sunday as he caught eight passes for 143 yards and a touchdown. Carolina elected to leave Ridley in single coverage, and the second-year receiver did a lot of damage once again. This follows last year’s game in Charlotte, which saw Ridley catch three passes for 90 yards and a touchdown. In that game, Ridley took a 75-yarder for a touchdown.

In fact, in three career games against Carolina, Ridley has scored a touchdown each time. When Atlanta and Carolina met for the first time in 2018, Ridley caught four passes for 64 yards and a score.

In a bit of a surprise, the Falcons were unable to move the ball on the ground against a defensive front that ranks among the worst in the NFL in rushing defense (128.4 rushing yards allowed, 27th in the NFL). But with the matchup advantages in the passing game, the offense was able to hit some big plays to Ridley and Julio Jones. Jones finished the game with six catches for 91 yards while getting some double coverage looks.

With the extra attention sent Jones’ way, Ridley made Carolina pay. And spreading the ball around allowed for Matt Ryan to post 311 yards while completing 67.7 percent of his passes.

“It was like pick your poison,” Jones said. “Matt found Cal down the field, and he did a tremendous job for us.”

 

 

NWFALCON, kiwifalcon and Emmitt like this

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