What I think about some things I saw over the weekend. . . . 

Falcons coach Dan Quinn is going to cling to his defensive philosophy until the bitter end. It’s not as if he has much of a choice. Quinn built the defensive roster to his specifications over five years and this season made himself the coordinator. The result is that the defense is no closer to being good than the day he was hired. 

CBS analysts noticed this on Sunday as Tennessee’s middling offense tore through Quinn’s defense for four scores on its first six possessions on the way to a 24-10 victory

“When you see Atlanta what bothers you is if they don’t get to the quarterback, it’s all about speed (in the secondary),” Phil Simms said on “The NFL Today” studio show. “They play one defense. Guys wide open.” 

The Titans, like the Colts and Eagles before them, made a few plays that showed what Simms meant. Tops among them was rookie A.J. Brown’s 55-yard touchdown catch on the first play of Tennessee’s second possession, which put the Titans ahead for good.

Marcus Mariota passed to Brown about 11 yards down the middle of the field. In what’s become typical for the Falcons, Brown had lots of space. The Falcons failed to rally and get Brown down after he caught the ball, which is another standard feature of Quinn’s 2019 defense. 

Falcons defensive backs Desmond Trufant, Ricardo Allen and Kemal Ishmael all appeared to have a chance to drag Brown down for, at most, a 30-yard gain. Brown ran away from them. Linebacker Deion Jones, who was about six yards behind Brown when he cut back for the end zone, ended up being the only Falcons defender to get a hand on him. 

Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown gets past Falcons linebacker Deion Jones for a touchdown Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Titans won the game 24-10.
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

That one play revealed some recurring problems with the Falcons defense as constructed by Quinn: gaping holes in the zone coverage, poor angles to pass-catchers and lack of speed in the secondary. The first two things on the list are related to Quinn’s defensive design and poor technique by his players. The lack of speed can be attributed to Quinn’s personnel preferences. 

Quinn likes big and long cornerbacks who can play a physical technique. His safeties tend to be hitters more than runners. Those preferences show up with all the Falcons penalties for holding, pass interference and roughing. It also means the Falcons can struggle to run with wide receivers of even average speed (Brown ran 40 yards in 4.49 seconds at the draft combine). 

Quinn coordinated an all-time great defense for the Seahawks in 2013 and a league-leading unit in 2014. There was a time it appeared he would successfully import that style as head coach for the Falcons. Quinn loaded the roster with draft prospects who fit his mold and had his guys on the come by the end of the Super Bowl season. 

But the defense improved only marginally in 2017. Last year’s defensive struggles were attributed to injuries. I thought Quinn scapegoated coordinator Marquand Manuel, who did a solid job under the circumstances.  Now the Falcons are healthier, Quinn is running the defense and it doesn’t look any better. 

Here’s what CBS game analyst Adam Archuleta, an NFL safety for seven seasons, had to say about Quinn’s group as Tennessee closed out the victory: 

“I just think when you look on the defensive side of the ball, they just need more play-makers and they need more players that can affect the game at different levels of their defense. They just haven’t been able to make the plays on a consistent basis this year. To play this style of defense that Dan Quinn wants to play, you need game changers and you need difference-makers and I am not sure how many of those guys they have on the defensive side.” 

The Falcons have not reaped the potential benefits of a basic defensive scheme. They’ve suffered plenty from the drawbacks. It’s harder and harder for Quinn’s defensive approach to work in a pass-oriented league with rules designed to juice scoring. Even Seattle’s defense became average as the core players from those great teams departed. 

The Falcons are worse than average defensively. They’ve been that way since Quinn, defensive guru, became head coach. Blame it on the lack of play-makers, the play-caller or the coaching. It’s all on Quinn. 

While Falcons faltered, rest of South rose up 

The listless Falcons performance looks even worse when contrasted with the rest of the NFC South winning as underdogs against good opponents. Two of them did it with backup quarterbacks and the other had Jameis Winston, which is about the same thing. 

The Saints gave the Cowboys their first loss with Teddy Bridgewater at QB instead of Drew Brees. The Panthers won at Houston with Kyle Allen subbing for Cam Newton. Winston passed for 385 yards and four touchdowns with one pick against the Rams, whose defense had allowed little until then. 

The Falcons now are alone at the bottom of the South. Before the season, I figured the four total games against the Bucs and Panthers were a good reason to think the Falcons could slip into the playoffs. The division appeared to be further up for grabs when Brees suffered a hand injury that will keep him out at least five weeks. 

Now those teams should be looking forward to playing the Falcons. Give credit to the Panthers, Bucs and Saints for raising their level of play when facing adversary. Quinn’s Falcons certainly haven’t done it. 

Justin Fields looked great again 

I’ve heard some Georgia supporters try to convince themselves that what ex-UGA QB Justin Fields is doing for Ohio state isn’t that impressive because of the competition. That got a little harder after Fields went to Nebraska and did the same to the Cornhuskers as he did to lesser foes. USA Today columnist/Twitter troll Dan Wolken inflamed those passions by tweeting that “Ohio State has a better quarterback than Georgia.” 

A typical retort from Georgia fans: If that’s the case then Fields would have beaten out Fromm. That’s one possibility. But there are others. 

Maybe Fields never got a fair chance to show that he’s better than Fromm. Perhaps he’s getting better coaching at Ohio State than he did at Georgia. Buckeyes coach Ryan Day, a former NFL QB coach, tutored first-round draft pick Dwayne Haskins (he vouched for Day with Fields). 

I’ve always defended Fromm while never quite understanding why he needs to be defended. He’s a very good quarterback. I love his smarts and toughness . I look forward to Georgia’s offense opening up for Fromm, who showed during the Notre Dame victory that he can make deep throws under pressure. 

But don’t pretend that what Fields is doing is ho-hum. In five games he’s got 16 passing touchdowns (No. 5 in FBS) against no interceptions with 9.4 yards per attempt (13th). Fields has rushed for another seven TDs. Excluding sack yardage, he’s averaging 4.8 yards rushing on 37 attempts. 

It’s rare for a quarterback with so little experience to produce like that at a Power 5 school. Fields is going to struggle at some point but you’re deluding yourself if you don’t see that he’s already a star. 

My Weekend Predictions had another solid week 

For the second straight week a strong Saturday picking college games against the spread (5-2) was sullied by my NFL selections (3-2). 

I took the Titans as underdogs but picked the Falcons to win, so I was right before I was wrong. I picked against the Panthers and Buccaneers, which hurts because of how much I like getting points. I didn’t see that coming. 

My two losses on college games were decisive. Auburn stomped Mississippi State. Clemson barely won, 21-20, which at least gives me a chance to gripe about how much I dislike big road favorites.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 
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