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Americus speaks: Will the Falcons’ defense be better this year?

By JOSEPH COMEAU

Every off-season, there are assistant coaches who are considered “hot names” in the NFL’s annual coaching carousel. Having served as the defensive coordinator for Seattle’s stout defense, it is not surprising that Dan Quinn was one of these hot commodities last year. With this in mind, when Atlanta hired Quinn as their head coach, expectations were high – especially on the defensive side of the ball. Starting the season with five straight victories only stoked the fires of optimism.
Unfortunately for the 2015 Falcons, the NFL plays a sixteen-game regular season. Atlanta went on to lose eight of their final eleven games, “highlighted” by a six-game losing skid that included both heartbreakingly close losses and an embarrassing blowout to division rival, the Carolina Panthers. While the disappointment of the 2015 collapse surely still stings for many fans, there are reasons to believe that this year’s version of the Falcons can compete for a coveted spot in the post-season.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for an improved 2016 campaign begins with Quinn’s hallmark – defense. Last season, Atlanta’s defense was the epitome of middling, ranking 16th in overall yards allowed, 18th in passing yards allowed, and 14th in rushing yards allowed.
Quinn came to the Falcons after coaching a Seattle defense that is widely viewed as one of the best in the league, so this is an area where it is reasonable to expect marked improvement. This year’s squad has a full season of experience running Quinn’s system, and Thomas Dimitroff has had another off-season to populate the roster with players that are a scheme fit.
In addition to free agent additions, Derrick Shelby, Courtney Upshaw, and Sean Weatherspoon – a former Falcons first-round pick who has re-signed with Atlanta after spending last season with Arizona – the Falcons’ brass spent three of their top four draft picks on defensive players.
In the first round (#17 overall), Atlanta drafted Florida safety, Keanu Neal, followed by the selections of LSU outside linebacker, Deion Jones, in the second round (#52 overall), and Minnesota outside linebacker, De’Vondre Campbell, in the fourth round (#115 overall).
Neal is a hard-hitting, physical safety with good athleticism who excels in run support and possesses decent coverage skills for a safety. Having coached the likes of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas during his tenure in Seattle, Coach Quinn understands the value of having physical, athletic safeties, and he may have found one in Neal.
Deion Jones is a slightly undersized linebacker (6’1”, 222 pounds) with blazing speed (4.38 40-yard dash), who projects as a hybrid linebacker-safety. This sort of hybrid player has become increasingly valuable in recent years, as defensive coordinators seek versatility as a means to cope with pass-happy offenses. Teams like the Cardinals and Rams have had success with hybrid linebacker-safeties Deone Bucannon and Mark Barron, and Jones could fit this mold.
De’Vondre Campbell is a bit of a project who is smart (Academic All-Big Ten) and physically gifted, but seems to lack NFL-caliber football instincts. With a combination of coaching, experience, and intelligence, Campbell could end up developing into a solid rotation player. For now, however, his primary contributions will likely be on special teams.
Vic Beasley’s development as a pass rusher could be the most important ingredient in realizing an improved defense. As the eighth overall pick in the 2015 draft, expectations are high for Beasley. Unfortunately his sack production (only four sacks last year) has yet to live up to those expectations. Beasley was recently moved from defensive end to outside linebacker, however it is not yet clear whether this move will have a significant impact on his production. Beasley’s struggles were symptomatic of the plight of the defense as a whole.
As a squad, Atlanta ranked dead last in the league with only 19 total sacks. This must improve.
A strong pass rush is a catalyst that has cascading effects on other parts of the defense, including pass coverage. Simply put, when you get to the quarterback, defensive backs don’t have to maintain coverage for as long and timing is disrupted as quarterbacks find themselves having to rush their throws. There is no question that Quinn and his staff are vividly aware of these facts, and improving the pass rush will undoubtedly be a point of emphasis throughout training camp and the pre-season.
Only time will tell if the Falcons’ defense will actually be better this year, and such improvements do not always translate into wins. Still, for fans who are looking for a glimmer of hope, the defense is a good place to start.

-Joseph Comeau is an Americus resident. Comeau is a professor of Sociology at Georgia Southwestern State University.
Let us know what you think about your favorite team in the upcoming NFL season. Be sure to submit your analysis to this ongoing “Americus Speaks” series by e-mailing a brief article detailing your thoughts on the upcoming season to michael.murray@americustimesrecorder.com.