Falcons head coach Dan Quinn talks about the team's play in loss at Houston. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

COVER 9@9: Fixing the Falcons defense 

Good morning! Welcome to the Cover 9@9 blog. It’s our weekly list of nine things at 9 a.m. Wednesday that you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons.

1. Back to the lab. The Falcons defense ranks near the bottom of the league in key categories. 

Coach Dan Quinn, who’s coordinating the unit, has to change things up as they get ready to face Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals at 4:05 p.m. Sunday. 

The Falcons are giving up 378.2 yards per game, which ranks 23rd out of 32 teams in the league.

They are bending and breaking as teams are averaging 30.4 points a game, which is 31st in the league. 

The main problem is on third downs where teams have converted 35 of 62 attempts for 56%, which is 31st in the league.

Falcons' defensive stats

“We wanted to make sure we’re going right back to boot camp and getting into it to get our football aligned right,” Quinn said. “I thought that was important for this week. I don't know if it was one play that would stick out, it was more a common theme of how much we can be on the details to improve.”

Quinn isn’t sure how the Falcons regressed on defense. 

“That’s why I thought we left the meeting understanding a clearer example of where we need to head to, but for it to be — how do I say it — for us to get to it is certainly disappointing, but that's where we're at and that's how we're going to fix it,” Quinn said. 

Texans wide receiver Will Fuller V noted all of the “free space” that he had to run through the Falcons’ zone defense. He later beat man-to-man coverage, too. 

Former Falcons defensive back Ron Parker, who spent most of his career with the Chiefs and playing under Bob Sutton, the Falcons’ senior defensive assistant, pointed his finger at the Falcons’ scheme on Twitter.

Trying to do something more complex wouldn’t make much sense. Most coaches would simplify things after five games of porous play.  

“They did what we thought they would do,” Quinn said. “It’s, to me, still about the execution and making the calls come to life and the energy that you can bring. That’s what, when you play zone defenses, there are some completions for sure.”

The Falcons’ zones aren’t working and neither is the man-to-man. 

“When you’re playing man-to-man defenses that’s a different look,” Quinn said. “Hey, I can’t speak on their team. What I can speak on is how do you play better? I do think some of the details are in less.”

Quinn didn’t seem to be leaning toward a major overhaul. 

“I would say overall, a scheme has certain strengths and weaknesses that you play to, but you have to make sure that it's all been different times,” Quinn said. “You show different looks to the quarterback, so they don't feel comfortable. Clearly there's lots of things that can affect that. If we can rush the passer better that changes things too. I think it's a combination of things that help you play better.”

2. Pass rush is invisible: The Falcons have just five sacks, which is tied for last in the league with Denver and Miami.  

Grady Jarrett leads the team with two sacks. Vic Beasley has 1.5 sacks, Adrian Clayborn has a sack and Takk McKinley has .5 of a sack. 

“I would say if you play better a little bit on first and second down that's a time where you’re able to get some up the field and deny the ball where the ball's not out as quickly,” Quinn said. “That's one area. When you get into those third down moments to where you get a chance to get after the quarterback as a four-man rush, you have to be able to deliver on that.”

Quinn is contemplating blitzing more. 

“That would be, in the passing downs, you're able to on the second down and longer and the third downs you're able to generate that, whether by blitz or by four-man pass rush, ways to do that and we clearly need to improve in that area,” Quinn said. 

3. Sanders on Quinn: Former Falcons great Deion Sanders is frustrated with the play of the team’s defense and on the NFL Network’s GameDay Prime show he predicted that the Falcons’ “coaching staff” would not remain past Week 8.

News that Arthur Blank had told The AJC’s Steve Hummer that there would not be any changes, for now had reached the Network. 

“What (Arthur Blank) expects is a commitment to excellence,” Sanders said. “But he expects a commitment to excellence. What he’s getting right now, when you pull up to the Stadium it’s already 30 points on the darn scoreboard because that’s what your defense is surrendering each game. Now, how can you win with that. They gave up 50 today (to Houston), man. So, when the owner says you’re fine, that’s what he truly believes. He wants you to be fine.

“But you know what gets you fired, not the owner. The fans and the media (will get) you fired. Because with them seats and ain’t no butts in them seats and they start to be empty, and the chatter starts going on, now the team starts to quit on you a little bit. Oh, there has to be a change. 

“I do not believe that this coaching staff will remain past Week 8.”

It was noted that a firing would affect a lot of people.

“I’m not doing it,” said Sanders, the Hall of Fame cornerback who played for the Falcons from 1989 to 1993. “I’m just telling you what is going to happen…. I’m trying to tell you the truth.”

It was noted that the Falcons play hard and have Arizona up next on the schedule.

“They can get that,” Sanders said. “Arizona is a good homecoming game. They can get that.”

After the Cardinals, the Falcons have home games against the Rams on Oct. 20 and the Seahawks on Oct. 27 before their bye week. 

“I hate it,” Sanders said. “This may happen. This is bad. You’re giving up 30 a game.”

4. Series history: This will be the 31st meeting. The series is tied 15-15. The Falcons won the last meeting 40-14 on Dec. 16, 2018.

5. Sky is limit for Murray:  Rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, who led the Cardinals (1-3-1) to their first victory of the season, is turning heads in the desert. 

Murray drove the Cardinals down the field for the game-winning field goal in a 26-23 win over the Bengals last Sunday.

Murray, the No. 1 player selected in the 2019 NFL draft, hit running back David Johnson up the left sideline for a 24-yard gain. On second-and-6 from the Bengals’ 39, Murray broke loose for a 24-yard gain to get the Cardinals in field goal range. 

“He took advantage of what was there,” Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury told the Phoenix media on Monday. “As long as he protects himself we want him to do whatever it takes to win the game.”

Murray rushed 10 times for 93 yards and one touchdown against the Bengals.

“I thought he did a nice job of that,” Kingsbury said. “When things were there he took them. We also had several called runs that he maximized. Also, we don’t want to put him in harm’s way too often.”

Murray, who set the NFL scouting combine abuzz when he measured a shade taller that 5-foot, 10-inches, completed 20 of 32 passes for 253 yards without a touchdown or interception. He had a passer rating of 87.1. 

“Kyler is elusive,” Johnson said. “He’s fast. He’s quick and it showed up (against the Bengals).” 

6. Cardinals record: The Cardinals opened the season with a 27-27 tie with the Lions before dropping three straight at Baltimore (23-17), against Carolina (38-20) and Seattle (27-10). 

Against the Bengals, Murray was under control with the game on the line. 

“He doesn’t change at all,” Kingsbury said. “He wants the ball in his hands.”

It was Murray’s best game of his early career.

“When he’s playing like that and not taking negative plays, it can be really challenging,” Kingsbury said. 

On the season, Murray has completed 126 of 201 attempts (62.7%) for 1,324 yards with four interceptions and four touchdowns. He has a passer rating of 80.1. 

Murray has rushed 28 times for 206 yards and two touchdowns. 

“I have to continue to do a good job of putting him in position to be successful,” Kingsbury said. “You see the speed. You see the accuracy as a thrower. If we can get him comfortable, I think the sky is the limit.” 

7. Arizona Falcons: Defensive tackle Corey Peters, defensive end Brooks Reed and cornerback Robert Alford are the former Falcons on the Cardinals roster.

Peters and Reed are playing, while Alford is on injured reserve with a leg injury.

The Cardinals, going back to John Abraham and Sean Weatherspoon have been fond of signing former Falcons. 

Peters played 48 defensive snaps (72%) against the Bengals at nose tackle last week. Reed played 12 defensive snaps (18%) and 19 snaps on special teams (63%).

8. Coach of week: Morgan County’s Bill Malone was named the winner of the Atlanta Falcons high school coach of the week. 

Malone, who has led his Bulldogs to a 5-1 overall start this season with a 2-0 start in Region 8-AAA.

Malone has spent 26 of his 30 years coaching and teaching at Morgan County, and he has served as head coach of the Bulldogs since 2007.

9. Depth Chart: Newly acquired strong safety James Cyprien, who played 24 defensive snaps (33 percent) against the Texans, was placed go on injured reserve on Tuesday.

There was no injury announcement for Cyprien on Sunday, but he was coming off a ACL knee injury that he suffered in 2018.

Cyprien also played three snaps on special teams in the 53-32 loss to the Texans. 

The Falcons signed cornerback DJ White, who played at Georgia Tech, off the Eagles practice squad and onto the 53-man roster. Offensive lineman John Wetzel was signed to the roster. Punter Sam Irwin-Hill was signed to the practice squad and tight end Carson Meier was released from the practice squad.

The Falcons traded Duke Riley and a sixth-round pick to the Eagles for Cyprien and a seventh-round pick prior to the Week 5 game against the Texans. 

White, 26, was recently signed to the Eagles practice squad after spending the exhibition season with the Washington Redskins.

White was a 34-game starter in college. He also spent time with the Colts and was a sixth-round pick by the Chiefs in 2016. 

Here’s the official depth chart for the Cardinals’ game:

OFFENSE

WR 11 Julio Jones, 18 Calvin Ridley, 83 Russell Gage
LT 70 Jake Matthews, 75 John Wetzel 
LG 68 77 James Carpenter, 71 Wes Schweitzer
C 51 Alex Mack, 71 Wes Schweitzer
RG 68 Jamon Brown, 71 Wes Schweitzer
RT 76 Kaleb McGary, 74 Ty Sambrailo, 73 Matt Gono 
TE 81 Austin Hooper, 80 Luke Stocker, 87 Jaeden Graham
WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 14 Justin Hardy, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus
QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub
RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 25 Ito Smith, 38 Kenjon Barner, 23 Brian Hill, 32 Qadree Ollison
FB 40 Keith Smith

DEFENSE

DE 98 Takkarist McKinley, 99 Adrian Clayborn
DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 95 Jack Crawford
DT 96 Tyeler Davison, 94 Deadrin Senat
DE 93 Allen Bailey, 50 John Cominsky
DE 44 Vic Beasley
LB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 54 Foyesade Oluokun
LB 45 Deion Jones, 53 Jermaine Grace
CB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 27 Damontae Kazee, 20 Kendall Sheffield
CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 28 Jordan Miller, DJ White 
S 37 Ricardo Allen, 41 Sharrod Neasman
SS 36 Kemal Ishmael, 35 Jamal Carter 

SPECIALISTS

K 3 Matt Bryant
KO 4 Matt Wile 
P 4 Matt Wile, (Mohamed Sanu)
LS 47 Josh Harris
H 5 Matt Bosher
KOR 38 Kenjon Barner
PR Kenjon Barner, (Mohamed Sanu and Justin Hardy in practice)

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About the Author

D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter is the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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