Falcons aim for free-flowing defense with Dan Quinn calling plays again

Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Four-time Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor might have summed it up best when he reflected on his former defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, immediately after Quinn coordinated his last game with the Seattle Seahawks.

"That guy allowed us to be ourselves," Chancellor said of Quinn after the Seahawks' Super Bowl XLIX loss to New England. "He got us to this point. That was our leader of the defense."

Quinn is leading the defense once again, just for a different NFC team. The Atlanta Falcons' head coach decided after a 7-9 season to reassume duties as the defensive playcaller after firing second-year coordinator Marquand Manuel. Meanwhile, Quinn remains in search of an offensive coordinator and a special-teams coach after letting go Steve Sarkisian and Keith Armstrong, respectively. The Falcons have interviewed Dirk Koetter, Mike Mularkey and Darrell Bevell for the offensive coordinator position, and Koetter seems to make the most sense at this point.

Regarding the defense, it's the second time Quinn will take over the playcalling in Atlanta, something he did in Week 13 of the 2016 season, when he relieved then-defensive coordinator Richard Smith of those responsibilities. Of course, the Falcons went on to play in the Super Bowl that season, mainly because of the league's highest-scoring offense. But a renewed sense of defensive energy was felt under Quinn during that eight-game stretch in '16. The Falcons improved in scoring defense, red zone defense, sacks per pass attempt and interceptions per pass attempt.

Quinn hopes to inject that same type of life into a defense that struggled in 2018.

"I think my background in the scheme of what we do and the style exactly like I want to do it, well, I like doing it," Quinn said. "I've done it before both as a defensive coordinator and as a head coach some. I just thought that was the best way for us moving forward and something I'm looking forward to."

How will the defense look under Quinn? He isn't going to change much, with a firm belief in the Cover 3 scheme that helped him boast the league's top-ranked defense in 2013 and 2014. Everyone wondered how Quinn could build the same type of defense in Atlanta without a Richard Sherman at corner, an Earl Thomas at free safety, a Chancellor at strong safety, a Bobby Wagner in the middle and a Michael Bennett or Cliff Avril getting to the quarterback.

Well, the Falcons found their Chancellor in hard-hitting, one-time Pro Bowler Keanu Neal, who is expected to make a full recovery from the torn ACL that sidelined him for most of 2018. They have their Wagner in one-time Pro Bowler Deion Jones, who recovered from early-season foot surgery in time to show why he's such a valuable part of the defense. Damontae Kazee thrived in that Thomas role this past season, tying for the league lead with seven interceptions. The return of Ricardo Allen next season from an Achilles tendon tear means the potential for more of a three-safety look, with the need to keep Kazee on the field alongside Allen and Neal.

The Falcons still would like to find a corner in the mold of Sherman, though they have some faith left in one-time Pro Bowler Desmond Trufant, not to mention some enthusiasm regarding the potential development of Isaiah Oliver. Quinn, with his background as a defensive line guru, certainly would like to develop a consistent rush group up front alongside defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Maybe that group will include 2015 eighth overall pick Vic Beasley, or perhaps it won't, as Beasley moves into his $12.81 million fifth-year option season.

No matter how the roster comes together next season, expect more physicality up front and more of an emphasis on creating turnovers after a 19-takeaway season. The Falcons forced 23 and 22 turnovers in Quinn's first two seasons as coach.

When Quinn took over the defensive playcalling in '16, players said they played more loose and free because he emphasized more of the run-and-hit factor, rather than overloading them with confusing looks. They said that he had a good feel for the flow of the game and that he could predict what was coming from the opposition. They said Quinn knew how not to put them in bad situations, such as calling an unnecessary blitz in a third-and-short situation.

The luxury Quinn could have in 2019 that Manuel didn't this past season is a healthy lineup. It's hard to quantify how much the absence of Neal and Allen hurt, particularly when you consider the intelligence of both players. Allen's ability to get everyone lined up correctly is like having another coach on the field, making Quinn's job that much easier. Missing Jones for 10 games was noticeable, too, as his speed made up for mistakes by others. Having Jones, De'Vondre Campbell and Foye Oluokun on the field means the future is bright at linebacker.

Taking back control of the defense is the easy part for Quinn. But what about the game-management responsibilities associated with being the head coach?

"I definitely had that to consider, for sure," Quinn said. "I even turned back the clock when I did that role for a good portion of the season in 2016 to say what were some issues that came up that I wanted to make sure that I could address if that situation came about. So, yeah, there will be some roles that will change."

As the shuffling continues with the coaching staff and the roster, the stakes going into next season haven't changed. The only person in the building guaranteed to be around for years to come is quarterback Matt Ryan, who signed a five-year, $150 million contract extension. Quinn might not say it publicly, but he knows how important reaching the playoffs will be in 2019, or else more could change than just who is calling plays.

"I don't feel it any more now than the day I took the job," Quinn said of the pressure to win. "For me, I don't feel it any more because I've certainly felt it from the time I've gotten here. And I take that responsibility really seriously."