John Clayton: In run to Super Bowl under Dan Quinn, Falcons followed Seahawks’ template on defense
One of the things of interest for Seahawks fans in Super Bowl XLI is how Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn is developing a defense similar to the Seahawks’ with the Falcons.
I would label this a great start, and what should be a great future, for the Falcons under the former Seahawks defensive coordinator. They ranked 25th in yards allowed and 27th in points allowed (25.4 points a game), but down the stretch the Falcons’ defense – particularly their young players – steadily improved. The numbers started coming down.
The way things were coming together, it wouldn’t surprise me if Atlanta’s defense finishes in the top 10 within a year. If that’s the case, the Falcons could be an 11- or 12-win team by next season.
Clearly, the Falcons aren’t the Seahawks’ 2013 or 2014 defense. They are more like the Pete Carroll teams in 2010 and 2011. The 2010 Seahawks gave up 25.4 points a game and ranked 27th in yards allowed. The 2011 defense gave up 19.7 points a game and ranked ninth in yards allowed.
Let’s look at some of the similarities between the two teams.
• Pass-rushers: It took all of two years for defensive end Vic Beasley, the Falcons’ 2015 first-round pick, to become a star. He went from four sacks as a rookie in 2015 to 15 1/2 this season. For a Carroll/Quinn defense to work, it needs at least two outside pass-rushers to harass quarterbacks. It also needs an inside pass-rushing defensive tackle. The Falcons developed their inside pass-rusher by taking veteran defensive end Adrian Clayborn and moving him to defense tackle. Unfortunately, he went on the injured reserve when he tore a biceps muscle in the Falcons’ first playoff game. Expect the Falcons to try to find another pass-rusher in the offseason to work on the other side of Beasley. When Quinn was Seattle’s defensive coordinator, the Seahawks developed an inside pass-rusher in Clinton McDonald. And in 2013, they signed Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who are now the Seahawks’ best outside pass-rushers.
• Middle linebacker: The Falcons have their Bobby Wagner in Deion Jones, who was their second-round choice last year and established himself as a star; some thought he might have been the Defensive Rookie of the Year. The biggest challenge for Jones was trying to communicate the plays and calls to the rest of the defense. What’s surprising was Jones was mostly a special teams player at LSU. He didn’t get a chance to start until his senior year. He has a 4.38 speed in the 40. With limited experience in college, he was a natural in the NFL and considers himself a Wagner-type LB.
• Strong safety: The Falcons have their Kam Chancellor. Keanu Neal, the Falcons’ first-round choice in 2016, is considered their Chancellor-type enforcer even though his body doesn’t look like Chancellor’s. Neal is just 6-foot and 211 pounds, but he hits like Chancellor and his teammates at Florida recognized that. “One of my teammates compared me to Kam Chancellor,” Neal said. “I didn’t know who he was, so I looked him up and I said, ‘Dang.’ He’s a big guy, but I have the same style.” Neal had a chance to exchange jerseys with Chancellor and he has that jersey in his locker at all times. He’s the team’s big hitter that patrols the middle of the field.
• Outside linebacker. The Falcons have a combination of Bruce Irvin and K.J. Wright with De’Vondre Campbell, who was a 2016 fourth-round choice and plays on the weakside at linebacker. He does a little bit of everything. He is heavily involved in pass coverage, which makes him like Wright, one of the best coverage linebackers in the league. But Quinn lets him blitz a little, which gives him a little bit of the Irvin feel. Irvin’s strength with Seattle was more his up-field rush than his ability to cover.
The Falcons don’t have the Legion of Boom, but their defense will draw legions of praise over the next few years.
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