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Turnaround of Falcons Defense Key to 2020 Success

 
2 weeks ago
2019atldcoverage4.jpeg?w=720

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

The Falcons Defense was simply atrocious through the first half of 2019. They allowed 31.3 points per game, went more than 4 straight games without a sack, generated just 4 turnovers, and couldn’t get off the field on 3rd down. It wasn’t just the numbers that were ugly. Atlanta also didn’t pass the eye test, with defenders regularly blowing coverages and giving up big plays. As a unit, they looked lost. The end result was a 1-7 start to the season. With Head Coach Dan Quinn’s job on the line, something had to change. And it did.

Quinn moved wide receivers coach Raheem Morris to defensive backs coach, and turned play-calling duties over to him on 3rd down. The impact was immediate:

Falcons Defense 2019 New Graphic 3rd Down Incl.

The most significant turnaround, and possibly the most important, was the improvement on 3rd down. During the first half of the season, opposing quarterbacks played to a 137.1 QB rating on the most important down. For reference, no quarterback has ever finished a season with a rating higher than 122.5. It’s hard to get off the field when you turn every passer into the best quarterback in NFL history.

With Raheem Morris calling the plays, though, the change was drastic. The Falcons went from the worst 3rd-down defense in the NFL (53.0% conversion rate) to the best (25.8% conversion rate):

2019ATLDGraphic2

So what was the big change? First, Morris got the Falcons away from their previous tendencies. He increased their use of zone coverage and utilized more 2-deep safety looks:

2019ATLDGraphic3

The underlying philosophy of increasing the use of 2-deep safety looks was to win with more underneath defenders in coverage. In zone (Cover-2/Tampa-2), that leaves 5 underneath defenders to protect the first down markers instead of just 4 in Cover-3. In man (2-man coverage), it allows defenders to play inside and underneath their receivers, making those shorter completions more difficult to come by for quarterbacks.

Morris also wanted more bodies in coverage in general. In fact, the Falcons utilized 3-man rushes on 3rd down twice as much under Morris as they did during the first half of the season. Through those first 8 games, opponents converted 87.5% of 3rddown attempts against these 3-man rushes versus just 6.25% in the second half of the season.

And truthfully, that trend is consistent across the board. The Falcons were better on 3rd down in the second half of the season no matter what coverage they played. They were better in zone, better in man, better in 2-safety coverages, better in 1-safety looks, better when they rushed 4, rushed 3, or blitzed. Coverage mix and the change in tendencies certainly played a significant role in the Falcons’ improvement. The ability to execute was just as critical, if not more. And this was where Morris made the biggestdifference.

In the second half of the season, Atlanta defenders appeared to have a better understanding of the design and purpose of the coverages they played. They did a better job of playing to each situation. Their communication in the secondary improved as they stopped blowing as many coverages. You can see the contrast on the below plays.

In Week 5 against the Texans, Houston was facing a 3rd-and-3 and aligned with a stack to the right of the formation. The Falcons played man-free coverage, with cornerback Isaiah Oliver responsible for Will Fuller. To deal with any traffic created by the stack, safety Ricardo Allen would drop down to provide help inside.

2019ATLDCoverage1Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Fuller went inside initially. Oliver followed aggressively, despite having help inside. When Fuller broke to the outside, Oliver was caught in the traffic, resulting in an easy 36-yard gain.

 

2019ATLBadManCoverage

This was a bad job by Oliver of understanding what the offense 

This was a bad job by Oliver of understanding what the offense was trying to do and where his help was coming from.

Fast forward to Week 10 against the Saints, with Morris now coaching the DBs. This was 3rd-and-6. Oliver’s man, Michael Thomas, was again aligned in a stack. This time there was no help inside.

2019ATLDCoverage2Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

The design of the play was for Thomas to run a crossing route with receivers coming from the other side of the field to create traffic and separate him from Oliver. Despite the fact that there was no help inside this time, Oliver initially remained patient and under control (unlike in the previous example) so he could see the field clearly, read the route combination, and then attack.

 

2019ATLDGoodvsNOMan

Playing with patience and control allowed Oliver to process 

Playing with patience and control allowed Oliver to process what the design of the play was, cleanly avoid traffic, and then make the play. The Saints were forced to punt.

Now to a couple of zone examples. The below play was a 3rd-and-8 against the Rams in the first half of the season. The Falcons would end up playing 3-deep with 5 men underneath (3-man rush). Keep your eye on defensive end Vic Beasley.

2019ATLDCoverage3Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

He dropped into zone right around the first-down marker. However, instead of hanging in his zone, he jumped the running back, who was 4 yards from the line of scrimmage. On 3rd-and-8. With two other defenders in the area. The result was a vacated zone behind him and a way-to-easy completion for a play where 8 defenders dropped into coverage.

2019ATLBadZoneCoveragevsLAR

That’s a poor understanding of the situation and bad execution, something we saw far too often out of the Falcons throughout the first half of the season.

During the second half of the season, we saw a better job across the board of players understanding both their coverage responsibilities and the situation. On the below 3rd-and-5 against the 49ers in Week 15, the Falcons again rushed 3 and rotated into a Tampa-2 zone (a look we saw a fair amount of in the second half of the season). Focus on cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson.

2019ATLDCoverage5Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

 

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

2019ATLDGoodvsSFTampa-2

Wreh-Wilson understood the situation and his role in the the 

Wreh-Wilson understood the situation and his role in the the design of the coverage as an underneath defender. He wasn’t about to allow an easy completion on 3rd-and-5 right at the first-down marker. Instead, he sat in his zone and didn’t even react to the corner route, knowing that his help over the top could take away that route. The rest of the defense played to theirresponsibilities as well. You can also see that there were more defenders in coverage to clog the short-to-intermediate zones in this Tampa-2 look, as we mentioned earlier.

You may be thinking, big deal. A player did what he was supposed to do. This isn’t earth shattering. And you’re right. But many players throughout the NFL don’t do what they are supposed to. Many coaches struggle to get all 11 players to do their jobs (The Falcons in the first half of the season being the prime example).

This is where coaching comes in. It’s not just about teaching technique and calling plays. It’s about making sure that players understand the design of the play. It’s about helping them understand the purpose of a coverage. This helps defenders feel comfortable playing to their responsibilities and allows them to trust that their teammates will be in the right place.

Atlanta should have a very good offense this season, given their talent. But their defense will need to execute with the discipline they played with in the second half of 2019 if they are going to have any chance in a loaded NFC South. Raheem Morris did a tremendous job turning the defense around in 2019, resulting in a well-deserved promotion to Defensive Coordinator. Getting his defense to pick up where it left off, as well as ensuring that the new additions acclimate quickly, will be critical for succeeding in a division with Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

Like what you read? Follow us on Twitter @FB_FilmRoom (Football Film Room) for more insight and analysis.

 
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Turnaround of Falcons Defense Key to 2020 Success   2 weeks ago Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass The

It takes a lot of guts for a head coach to hold his hands up and then transfer play calling duties to someone else midseason, so I give DQ a lot of credit for doing that, BUT... That DQ led defense fo

Keep going, I'm almost there...

14 minutes ago, ADAMSVILLE GYM said:

Great post.

I think the most interesting point is how often Morris dropped into coverage on 3rd down, rushing only 3 players.  People hated Manuel for this, but Morris did it as well

“Morris also wanted more bodies in coverage in general. In fact, the Falcons utilized 3-man rushes on 3rd down twice as much under Morris as they did during the first half of the season. Through those first 8 games, opponents converted 87.5% of 3rddown attempts against these 3-man rushes versus just 6.25% in the second half of the season.”

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It takes a lot of guts for a head coach to hold his hands up and then transfer play calling duties to someone else midseason, so I give DQ a lot of credit for doing that, BUT... That DQ led defense for first half of the year was atrocious (like historically bad, like Saints 2012 bad). For a guy previously known as a defensive guru, I think DQ somehow managed to get off pretty lightly for that sh*t show. 

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4 minutes ago, FalconsIn2012 said:

I think the most interesting point is how often Morris dropped into coverage on 3rd down, rushing only 3 players.  People hated Manuel for this, but Morris did it as well

“Morris also wanted more bodies in coverage in general. In fact, the Falcons utilized 3-man rushes on 3rd down twice as much under Morris as they did during the first half of the season. Through those first 8 games, opponents converted 87.5% of 3rddown attempts against these 3-man rushes versus just 6.25% in the second half of the season.”

I think the key was going away from the single high safety looks, which allowed us to mix up and disguise our coverages a little better. Plus we've never really had the personnel to run that single high effectively. 

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6 minutes ago, Smiler11 said:

It takes a lot of guts for a head coach to hold his hands up and then transfer play calling duties to someone else midseason, so I give DQ a lot of credit for doing that, BUT... That DQ led defense for first half of the year was atrocious (like historically bad, like Saints 2012 bad). For a guy previously known as a defensive guru, I think DQ somehow managed to get off pretty lightly for that sh*t show. 

The job Henderson did coaching the secondary was quite possibly the worst coaching in NFL history.  I blame Quinn for not replacing him after Week 3.

Maybe I’m blind, but Quinn is still a gifted coach.  Being the Head Coach & Defensive Coordinator is nearly impossible.  The last two coaches to try, Quinn & Belichick, both gave up play calling mid-season.  It’s simply too much to be the actual DC and HC.

For Quinn’s part, he pretty much gave up calling the defense in the Arizona game, Week 6.  He seriously crapped the bed against Houston, but the first 4 weeks we allowed just 312 ypg.  That’s pretty good.  
 

The issue was our offense turned the ball over 9 times, consistently putting the defense in tough spots

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15 minutes ago, Smiler11 said:

It takes a lot of guts for a head coach to hold his hands up and then transfer play calling duties to someone else midseason, so I give DQ a lot of credit for doing that, BUT... That DQ led defense for first half of the year was atrocious (like historically bad, like Saints 2012 bad). For a guy previously known as a defensive guru, I think DQ somehow managed to get off pretty lightly for that sh*t show. 

How was he supposed to get off? His job was on the line. If it wasn't for that second half turnaround, he wouldn't be in Atlanta right now.

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13 minutes ago, Mr.11 said:

How was he supposed to get off? His job was on the line. If it wasn't for that second half turnaround, he wouldn't be in Atlanta right now.

I guess I'm surprised he was given the opportunity to turn it around. I like Quinn and I I'm not disappointed he's still here but I think he wouldn't have got away with at a lot of franchises. I think he owes a lot to Ulbrich and Morris for that turnaround. 

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39 minutes ago, FalconsIn2012 said:

The job Henderson did coaching the secondary was quite possibly the worst coaching in NFL history.  I blame Quinn for not replacing him after Week 3.

Maybe I’m blind, but Quinn is still a gifted coach.  Being the Head Coach & Defensive Coordinator is nearly impossible.  The last two coaches to try, Quinn & Belichick, both gave up play calling mid-season.  It’s simply too much to be the actual DC and HC.

For Quinn’s part, he pretty much gave up calling the defense in the Arizona game, Week 6.  He seriously crapped the bed against Houston, but the first 4 weeks we allowed just 312 ypg.  That’s pretty good.  
 

The issue was our offense turned the ball over 9 times, consistently putting the defense in tough spots

I like Quinn as a leader and someone who sets an overall direction and culture within the organisation. You hear people speak about him and you can tell how much they respect him. That said I can't see many teams chomping at the bit for him as a DC down the line.

The off-season leading up to last year the narrative was all about the defensive turnaround, DQ finally running his defense as he sees it. There was supposed to be no more scapegoats and DQ was putting his reputation on the line as a defensive guru. Obviously it was a huge letdown and yet it seems they did find a scapegoat (Henderson) as they did with Marquand Manuel the year before. 

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2 hours ago, FalconsIn2012 said:

You may be thinking, big deal. A player did what he was supposed to do. This isn’t earth shattering. And you’re right. But many players throughout the NFL don’t do what they are supposed to.

This. I've said it countless times, we've had too many players that just couldn't do what they were supposed to nothing. Nothing over the top, but the assignment. Little awareness of down and distance to adjust accordingly. Just stupid athletes playing football. 

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3 hours ago, FalconsIn2012 said:

I think the most interesting point is how often Morris dropped into coverage on 3rd down, rushing only 3 players.  People hated Manuel for this, but Morris did it as well

“Morris also wanted more bodies in coverage in general. In fact, the Falcons utilized 3-man rushes on 3rd down twice as much under Morris as they did during the first half of the season. Through those first 8 games, opponents converted 87.5% of 3rddown attempts against these 3-man rushes versus just 6.25% in the second half of the season.”

To be fair, Manuel had better results rushing 4 that year. We were giving up egregious amount of completions rushing 3. I think that was where the frustration with Manuel boiled with ppl. He didn't have a feel for his guys when they were finally in a rhythm on defense. He will get cute and take them out of it.

Raheem is just night and day better in what ever look we fielded during the second half last year.

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3 hours ago, Smiler11 said:

It takes a lot of guts for a head coach to hold his hands up and then transfer play calling duties to someone else midseason, so I give DQ a lot of credit for doing that, BUT... That DQ led defense for first half of the year was atrocious (like historically bad, like Saints 2012 bad). For a guy previously known as a defensive guru, I think DQ somehow managed to get off pretty lightly for that sh*t show. 

Could we argue that the db coach was just horrible for both Manuel and Quinn? I still think Quinn is very capable. Look at the turn around job he did during our superbowl year when he took over from Richard (i forgot his last name). I am not sure if he is good at making assistant coaching decisions.

He let 2 Shanahan disciples go despite knowing he wanted to keep the offense. If he would've retained one of them and we still performed badly, then the organization and fan base would have supported letting him go. He moved a premium secondary coach in Raheem to offense just to promote Manuel. He hired Henderson who was garbage for both Manuel and him. 

I hope the growing pains with him are over. Hopefully the loyalty butterflies in him are gone. I like coach whit and the new defensive line coach. I've always thought they've been underperforming for more than a while now. 

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2 hours ago, vel said:

This. I've said it countless times, we've had too many players that just couldn't do what they were supposed to nothing. Nothing over the top, but the assignment. Little awareness of down and distance to adjust accordingly. Just stupid athletes playing football. 

Great post. We have the play makers on defense. We just need guys who can do their jobs and play smart football.

I do hope that we sign a vet pass rusher. In this league, you can never have too many pass rushers. I don't think we can expect Fowler and Takk to stay healthy all season.

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12 minutes ago, FalconsIn2012 said:

It was a top 5 defense weeks 7-17 last year.   But crap on them if ya want.  

How you have any confidence in a Dan Quinn defense after now 5 years of subpar performances and at best smoke and mirror spotty "ok" play is beyond me.  You are setting yourself up for a monumental disappointment.

You want to cherry pick a few weeks at the end of last year, and ignore the previous 4.5 years of crap?

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34 minutes ago, falcons007 said:

Meaningless games playing for jobs, two years in a row. Wake me up when they show up in real games with season in play.

Are we really calling 9 games of a 16 game season meaningless?  lol.  Guess the other teams were not trying as hard to score each possession

NFL players don’t really have meaningless games.  Bad tape impacts how much they will make in FA.  

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And I will follow with this...Dan Quinn (outside of the Saints) has a pretty good divisional record.  Down the stretch we played each of the Saints, Bucs and Panthers twice.  

DQ: 8-2 vs Car, 6-4 vs TB, 4-6 vs NO.  Divisional games are generally lower scoring and competitive which skew the numbers.

In terms of offensive DVOA, we played the following teams down the stretch:

Saints - 2nd
Panthers - 30th
Bucs - 22nd
49ers - 8th
Jags - 28th

I will give credit to Morris and Ulbrich for the turn around from the previous half of the season, but let's just not assume the ending of last season will bleed into this season.  I hope it does.  I'm not holding my breath.  
 

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1 minute ago, athell said:

And I will follow with this...Dan Quinn (outside of the Saints) has a pretty good divisional record.  Down the stretch we played each of the Saints, Bucs and Panthers twice.  

DQ: 8-2 vs Car, 6-4 vs TB, 4-6 vs NO.  Divisional games are generally lower scoring and competitive which skew the numbers.

In terms of offensive DVOA, we played the following teams down the stretch:

Saints - 2nd
Panthers - 30th
Bucs - 22nd
49ers - 8th
Jags - 28th

I will give credit to Morris and Ulbrich for the turn around from the previous half of the season, but let's just not assume the ending of last season will bleed into this season.  I hope it does.  I'm not holding my breath.  
 

The saints were 2nd in dvoa?

Really?

Every time I watched them, their defense was trash......atleast their secondary was.

They are pretty good upfront but that back end was terrible.

 

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6 minutes ago, falconsd56 said:

The saints were 2nd in dvoa?

Really?

Every time I watched them, their defense was trash......atleast their secondary was.

They are pretty good upfront but that back end was terrible.

 

I was surprised also.  3rd pass, 10th rush, 2nd overall weighted.

They put up some points down the stretch...34, 34, 26, 46, 34, 38, 42

e:

This is offensive DVOA not defensive btw...

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