Youth and Speed are the Falcons’ Keys
2016 Postseason

Youth and Speed are the Falcons’ Keys

Dan Quinn built not ‘Seattle’ East but ‘Atlanta Now’—a defense predicated on young stars playing fast and physical, with some attitude too. The concept will face its toughest test against Aaron Rodgers and the Pack
 

Are the Falcons the more complete team?

The MMQB's Peter King and Albert Breer and Sports Illustrated's Andrew Perloff preview the NFC title game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Green Bay Packers.

Top six tacklers for the Falcons in their 36-20 NFC playoff win over Seattle last weekend:

Player, Pos NFL Year Tackles
Keanu Neal, S R 9
Deion Jones, LB R 5
De’Vondre Campbell, LB R 4
Jalen Collins, CB 2 4
Grady Jarrett, DT 2 4
Brian Poole, LB R 4
 
 

Atlanta’s seventh rookie or second-year starter, linebacker Vic Beasley, led the NFL in sacks this year with 15.5.

Get the picture? Something pretty good is happening in Atlanta, and it’s on the opposite side of the ball from the prospective MVP, and the play of all new kids is likely going to determine whether the Falcons beat the Packers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.

• HOW ATLANTA’S D GOT GOOD, FAST: Andy Benoit on Dan Quinn’s critical midseason tweak that allowed his young defenders to come into their own

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At one point in this win over Seattle, late in the game, Fox had a graphic on the screen that said on 34 pass-drops by Russell Wilson, he’d been sacked, hit or pressured on 27 of them. I mentioned the stat to Quinn.

“Well,” Quinn, “that’s the idea.”

As that game went on, it wasn’t hard to see that Quinn, in his second year as Atlanta’s coach after serving as Seattle’s defensive coordinator for two years, had gone back to the future. The speed and playmaking—and, to some degree, also the chippiness and physicality—of Seattle’s defense in 2013 and 2014 … that is what Atlanta is becoming. “I never set out to create Seattle East,” Quinn said this week. “I wanted to create Atlanta Now.”

Perhaps, but there’s no question Atlanta Now is mindful of the Pete Carroll/Quinn defense that took Seattle to two Super Bowls. There’s a team aspect to the tackling. There’s a variety of fronts and the ability of Beasley to rush (like you saw Whitney Mercilus do for Houston up the gut against Tom Brady last week) from game-plan-specific spots when the situation calls for it. There’s the folding in of young players right away to a winning unit, the same way Seattle’s done it since Carroll took over. Youth is good.

Photo:

Keanu Neal and Deion Jones lasso Larry Fitzgerald in November.

And for the Falcons to hold Aaron Rodgers in check on Sunday, this defense is going to have to play as it has for much of the way since Dec. 1, when the youth on defense finally started to get the Quinn scheme, and the Quinn way.

“It’s takes a while to get to know a new scheme, especially when you’re a new coach with a new staff,” Quinn said this week. “There’s a difference between running 4.5 [seconds in the 40-yard dash] and playing 4.7. That’s what we were at the beginning of the year. I went into this season knowing there would be growing pains, but knowing it’d pay off in the end.

“Now we’re playing faster. [Second-round linebacker] Deion Jones, particularly. I’d say he’s turned the corner in the last five weeks and has really begun to play very instinctive, smart football. Now he can make the communication across the board with the guys out there.”

One of the benefits Atlanta got in hiring Quinn in 2015 was that, immediately, there was more chemistry between the coaching side and the scouting/player-procurement side than late in the Mike Smith era. Not that Smith’s player preference was entirely different from GM Thomas Dimitroff’s. But the former Atlanta staff wanted a bulky front to stop the great runners and figured it could manufacture a pass rush. Quinn, in contrast, wanted Dimitroff to draft with speed as a high priority. Atlanta’s first pick in the Quinn era: Beasley, who ran a Clowney-like 4.53 40 at the combine. Dimitroff is comfortable, as is his top aide, Scott Pioli, with mining for speed and football-loving players.

Photo:

Jones and Rodgers are sure to tango again on Sunday.

Jones, a linebacker from LSU draft late in the second round last April, is a great example of the chemistry between the two sides of the building. His height (6'1") was just what the Quinn team liked in a middle linebacker. Same with his speed (4.60). He was a little light at 225, but now he’s close to Quinn’s weight preference for the middle: a pound or two shy of 235. His Wonderlic score, reportedly among the highest for linebackers in the 2016 draft, was a plus, as was his grade for intelligence on the field and zeal for the game. And the way he played—tough, chippy, physical for a smaller guy—was perfect for Quinn. Four or five Falcons personnel people cycled through Baton Rouge in the fall of 2015; all came away with a good grade on Jones. In the spring, Quinn and linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich were joined by Dimitroff, assistant GM Scott Pioli and director of college scouting Steve Sabo for a campus workout. By the time draft week came, there was unanimity favoring Jones. But once he was picked, another hurdle had to be crossed: The coaching staff had to give Jones the chance to learn on the job. They did, and now the maturing Jones will be a challenge for Rodgers on Sunday in rush and coverage.

• PACKERS VS. FALCONS—INSIDE THE GAME PLAN: Andy Benoit previews the NFC Championship Game

From the start, the Falcons, quietly, were bursting with pride over their new defensive pieces. In training camp Quinn took The MMQB team into his office for a 35-minute tutorial on what was going to be different on his defense this year—namely, the physicality of Neal, a box safety drafted unexpectedly high, in the first round. Quinn showed us a few plays from last season, when opposing tight ends and backs would have three or four steps to run after catching the ball before being challenged by a Falcons defender. Then he showed us the early days of training camp, when Neal was there immediately after the catch to make a stop.

But what’s been interesting to see on this defense is that Neal, who has made a lot of those stops this year (and will have to make more on Sunday against tight end Jared Cook and running back/wideout Ty Montgomery), has been outshone at time by the second-round pick, Jones, at middle linebacker. Jones finished 25th and Neal 26th in the league in tackles (with 108 and 106, respectively). Neal led all defensive backs with five forced fumbles. Jones was eighth among middle linebackers in tackles with 108 (59 behind a model for the position and NFL leader this year, Bobby Wagner, in Seattle), and Jones’ three interceptions were second among all middle ’backers. He returned one, against Drew Brees, for a 90-yard touchdown.

“He’s really found his voice as a ballplayer,” Quinn said. “One day in practice, one of the coaches went onto the field to make a correction, and Deion arm-barred him away. He was like, ‘Hey, I got it.’ And he made the correction himself. That’s when you know your players are learning the system—when they can correct themselves.”

This NFC Championship Game is going to be an explosive one. A great chess match too, because Rodgers has a way to avoid even the fastest rushers, so speed alone won’t win this game. In their first meeting (Oct. 30: Falcons 33, Packers 32), Rodgers ran for 60 yards, so it’s clear he’ll leave the pocket if chased, and he’ll leave it profitably.

No one—certainly not Vegas—will be surprised to see 70 points scored. It’s going to come down to which defense can make two or three stops against two of the best offenses in recent years in the NFL. And in order for Rodgers to stumble a couple of times, the Atlanta defense will need to rely on what’s gotten them here: speed. But speed with the realization that, as Rich Gannon says, “There’s no better quarterback when flushed out of the pocket, maybe ever, than Aaron Rodgers.” Whatever happens for Atlanta, the defensive game plan is in the hand of the youngest core of defensive players left in the tournament.

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