ATLANTA -- There’s no simple fix when your defense is fresh off giving up almost 600 yards. Dan Quinn knows it.
But one has to wonder if the Atlanta Falcons coach is second-guessing himself after parting ways with last year’s defensive coordinator — Marquand Manuel -- and deciding to take over the defensive play-calling himself this season. It worked effectively in 2016, when Quinn took the duties from Richard Smith in Week 13 on the way to Super Bowl LI. However, the transition hasn’t been so seamless this time around.
Through four games, Quinn’s 1-4 Falcons have allowed 30.4 points per game, second-most in the league behind the winless Miami Dolphins (40.8 ppg.). The Falcons rank 30th on third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 56.5% of the time. They rank 30th in first downs allowed per game at 23.6. And they have allowed 24 plays of 20-plus yards this season, tied for the fifth-most in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
A day after being torched by the Houston Texans in a 53-32 loss, Quinn was asked if he might consider giving up the defensive coordinator duties to someone else so he can focus on all the other responsibilities that come with being the head coach.
"My job is to fix it," Quinn said. "Moments like this are a reminder of why we coach and play, because we love it so much. But my ego would never be as big as the team. I always do what’s best for the team. ... If I felt [giving up the playcalling] was best, trust me, I would have certainly done that. I know what we can do, we can do better. So that’s kind of where my mind is.
"I recognize the question, for sure, when you’re not achieving the results you have. But trust me on that one: My ego is never as big as the team. I will always do what’s best for that. But at this time, I don’t think that’s where I’m at."
Could there be a point this season where Quinn does step back and hand over the defensive coordinator role? It seems unlikely, considering he went to team owner Arthur Blank after last season and discussed his vision of taking over the defensive playcalling following a 7-9 finish. Handing those responsibilities off would be like waving the white flag.
On the Falcons’ current staff, senior assistant Bob Sutton was the Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator from 2013-18 and was the New York Jets' defensive coordinator from 2006-08. Sutton was fired after last year’s AFC Championship Game when the Chiefs surrendered 37 points and 524 yards. Jerome Henderson is the defensive pass-game coordinator. Linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich was thought to be a candidate for coordinator before, when Quinn appointed Manuel. And wide receivers coach Raheem Morris, the assistant head coach and former head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is intelligent enough to call plays on either side of the ball.
Asked if he has guys on the staff trustworthy enough to call the defense, Quinn responded, “Of course I do, but I don’t see myself into that space."
Since Quinn intends to proceed as the defensive coordinator, what needs to change?
It could be time for some drastic personnel changes. One target of criticism is pass-rusher Vic Beasley, who just hasn’t performed like the same player who led the league with 15.5 sacks in 2016. Quinn entered the season counting on Beasley and Takk McKinley to bring pressure off the edges, with Grady Jarrett creating havoc on the inside. But the Falcons are tied at the bottom of the league with just five sacks. Jarrett has two and Beasley has 1.5 sacks. Veteran Adrian Clayborn might be the only option if the Falcons plan to utilize Beasley less.
The secondary has had issues surrendering big plays. Quinn has talked about speedy rookie defensive back Kendall Sheffield being ready for a more significant role, but that came after nickelback Damontae Kazee exited the Houston game with a head injury.
Could Sheffield, who has played inside and out, press for more time playing outside at corner with both veteran Desmond Trufant and second-year player Isaiah Oliver struggling? Could fellow rookie corner Jordan Miller get an opportunity on defense after recovering a fumble on special teams in his first game action last week?
Injuries have been an issue in the secondary, with Kazee’s status unknown and newly acquired strong safety Johnathan Cyprien already placed on injured reserve with a foot injury. The Falcons lost starting strong safety Keanu Neal to a season-ending Achilles’ tear.
The team spent added time evaluating all five games this week to figure out which combinations might work best moving forward.
"I think that’s the nice part about when you get to in-season, it’s all about performance, man" Quinn said. "When you put the game tape on, where are you at? We’re in a performance-results business. When you get into the season, that’s the only thing you need to look at. ... If there are changes to be made, we won’t back off with those.
So are changes coming?
"There could be some," Quinn said. "Some of the changes may be more subtle than others. ... I’ll save that for the game as we get started. But rest assured, there’s not a time I don’t think about the team and how to attack and how to do it better."
Quinn had better come up with some solutions quickly. The Falcons face a rather talented rookie quarterback next in Kyler Murray, who should be more confident coming off his first win last week. Then the Falcons face a pair of high-powered offenses at home back-to-back in the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks.