FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The blank stare Marquand Manuel wears as he emerges from the Atlanta Falcons' locker room on any given game day is intimidating.
Wireless headphones cover Manuel's ears as he shifts into his "zone" by meditating to the old-school R&B sounds of Teddy Pendergrass. Shortly afterward, Manuel starts to nod his head emphatically as he picks up his jogging pace, mouthing the lyrics of 2Pac's "Against All Odds" as he makes his trek around the stadium.
Gloves cover Manuel's hands as if he's one of the receivers set to catch passes from Matt Ryan. The only footballs thrown Manuel's way come from young fans he randomly picks to play catch with during pregame warm-ups, like what has become J.J. Watt's ritual in Houston.
But Manuel's routine isn't about a player getting hyped for kickoff. It's about a defensive coordinator preparing to scheme against an opposing offense.
"It just shows his passion for the game," cornerback Desmond Trufant said of Manuel's player-like approach. "Obviously, he's a coach. But he was a player, too -- for a long time. He probably still gets the same feeling when game time comes."
Manuel, 38, has an infectious energy, and the players feed off it. They marvel at how the former NFL safety sprints across the field before every practice like a bubble roster guy trying to impress. They've even spotted him running barefoot after practice, a routine he says is "good for the knees and ankles."
Maybe the players should follow suit.
"When the first thing he does is take off running full speed, you're like, 'Well, damn, if he can come out and do it every day, s--t, I know I can do it," free safety Ricardo Allen said. "I mean, he puts his cleats on and takes off running. To see your coach do that ... he's just an energy kind of guy. Every day he comes to work, he comes with intensity.
"If you think you're going to come around him and just get by, that ain't the kind of coach you're going to get."
Manuel is "in your face" at times. Just ask rookie Damontae Kazee, who got an earful before Saturday's practice and didn't flinch while soaking in the knowledge. Manuel balances throwing F-bombs with calmly relaying stern messages.
No matter how he emphasizes his point, it seems to be working.
The 8-5 Falcons enter Monday night's critical game against Tampa Bay improved across the board from a defensive perspective in Manuel's first season as coordinator. They've limited the explosive plays that plagued them last season and went into Week 15 ranked third-best in the league while allowing just 38 pass plays of 20-plus yards. They've become much more resistant in scoring situations after the embarrassment from their Super Bowl collapse against the Patriots. They now rank ninth in the NFL in scoring defense, yielding 20.1 points per game, five-plus points fewer than last season. And they've dramatically improved on third down, going from dead last a year ago in surrendering a 72.7 percent conversion rate to eighth this season at 47.6 percent.
"We've definitely gotten better as a defense, and we definitely have to give him thanks and give 'M' his due," Trufant said, using the nickname for his coach.
Manuel, who interacts while coaching from the sideline rather than the box, credits his players for maturing at all levels of the defense. He knew guys such as linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell would make strides during their second year in the defense, without having to think as much. He realized the return of the one-time Pro Bowler Trufant from last year's season-ending pectoral injury, coupled with Allen's leadership and intelligence, would help stabilize the secondary. And he figured reigning NFL sack champ Vic Beasley Jr. would draw added attention after a 15.5-sack season. That meant Manuel would have to work in unison with coach Dan Quinn to figure out the correct times to dial up pressure or just rely on front-four rushes from guys such as Adrian Clayborn, Grady Jarrett, newcomer Dontari Poe, and rookie Takk McKinley.
"The thing I've learned about playcalling is to be clear, be precise and be consistent," Manuel said. "If you're clear on your call, no matter what it is -- good or bad or different, if it's a pressure or not, if it's man or zone -- be clear, be precise, and be consistent. That's what the players need to get lined up, find the details, adjust and go execute."
'I'm a smart dumb guy'
Manuel, who started college studying automotive engineering, is proud about earning his bachelor's degree in criminology from the University of Florida in less than three years, thanks to some intense summer-school work. Now, he's 15 credit hours shy of earning his master's from Florida in counseling, specializing in mental health.
"Smart? I'm always like this: "I'm a smart dumb guy," Manuel said with a laugh. "I just apply what I learn, and I have a great memory."
Manuel used his sharp mind to dissect the brains of some of his previous coaches, including Ray Rhodes, Dick LeBeau and John Fox. Over the course of his eight-year playing career with six different teams, Manuel defended every offensive scheme imaginable.
During his last NFL season (with the Detroit Lions in 2009), Manuel played against Brett Favre, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger while competing against Matthew Stafford in practice. Those were experiences he can relay directly to his players, particularly with guys such as Brees, Rodgers and Stafford on the Falcons' schedule.
"He understands the flow of the game," Allen said. "He's a guy who can start to anticipate what people are going to do against him. He's very smart.
"That's one of the biggest things that he and I relate on, because we can go back and forth and we can battle about adjustments and all kinds of stuff. At the end of the day, he understands the best possible reasoning why we're running something. He's really good at predicting, 'Hey, they keep setting something up.' Sooner or later, he'll start calling out the play to me, something that they might be running, like what we haven't seen and what we've seen -- like what they think they might have success on. He's smart enough to understand all that."
Manuel challenges his players to be mentally strong. Allen talked about how guys are fined -- playfully, like with Monopoly dollars -- if they say, "ohhhhh, ahhhh," while stumbling through questions fired off by their coordinator.
Manuel laughed when told Allen revealed the secret.
"I always say 'A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y ... that means you don't know the answer.'" Manuel said of hesitant responses. "A lot of that is you're challenging a player at a different level mentally right in the moment, because that's what happens in-game.
"When I'm quizzing you, I think it helps that players don't have paralysis by analysis. A lot of coaches that never coached and played don't understand those moments."
As wise as he might be, Manuel knows he doesn't have it all figured out just yet. In-game issues creep up, such as not having the right coverage in critical moments or not having the right personnel in the lineup, leading to an untimely timeout. And there will be criticism if the defense regresses over the last three games, particularly with the run-stopping issues the Falcons already have. But the entire Falcons staff, not just Manuel, is working to master game management.
Biggest area of improvement
When he glances at statistics, there's one area Manuel takes pride in more than any other.
"Red zone," he said. "They don't score, they don't win. Their efficiency in the red zone, that's the first thing you look at. They don't do that, they don't win."
Quinn credited Manuel months ago for installing new calls to the red zone defense. Manuel believes there is a distinct reason, other than the maturation of his players and the playcalling tweaks mentioned by Quinn, why the Falcons have improved their red zone defense.
This offseason, the team implemented a new practice period called "Red Zone Lockout" where the starters compete against the starters in red zone situations. Quinn picked up the familiar idea from an unnamed coach who visited the facility.
"It's worked," Manuel said. "We do it every week. It's probably the best thing we implemented in the offseason."
Quinn throws out a random score total each side needs to reach to win. Seven points are awarded for an offensive touchdown and a defensive turnover. The sides get four points for either a first down or defensive stop.
"We're going back and forth until we get to a certain number," Manuel said. "And it has spilled into our season. When we started it, guys gravitated toward it because I don't care who you are, when you add that competitive juice -- and now you're telling me we're keeping a score -- it changes the element of what we do."
The Falcons have limited opponents to a 44 percent red zone conversion rate in their eight victories, which is better than the season average. They've held offenses directed by Brees, Russell Wilson and Stafford to a combined 33 percent conversion rate in red zone situations.
Nickelback Brian Poole getting a hand on Lions receiver Golden Tate to stop Tate short of the goal line in the final moments of a win at Detroit was the red zone play of the year. It also might prove to be crucial in the playoff picture regarding tiebreakers and the Lions' chances of making the field.
Manuel celebrated Poole's play and applauds every such defensive stop -- red zone, third down, whatever -- in an animated fashion as if he was still out there in uniform.
"He pretty much has a lot of energy that gets us motivated every day," Jones, the NFC Defensive Player of the Week, said of Manuel. "He just comes in every day ready to work. It's like he never has a down day."
Manuel brushed of such praise from Jones and others.
"I always say this, man: If you don't utilize the tools that God gave you, he's going to always take them," Manuel said. "I was blessed with energy and passion, and the smarts and knowledge of the game ... my ability to remember things and to help guys and to give back. If I don't give back, He's going to take it."