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:
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):
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:
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 3rd down 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 biggest difference.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 their responsibilities 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.
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