It was just an exhibition game, and the first one at that. No real reason to worry about the Falcons looking so bad while losing to the Jets on Friday night.
Instead, I came away thinking about safety Damontae Kazee’s performance. It seemed as if Kazee was in on every play for a stretch of the first half. He was the latest to feature Falcons coach Dan Quinn’s brand: young, fast and physical.
“He goes really hard,” Quinn said. “He totally empties it for his guys.”
“Empties it” is a classic Quinn-ism. I’ve sometimes poked fun at Quinn’s slogan-heavy messaging for a professional team. But I also think there’s something real about Quinn’s enthusiasm and positive energy rubbing off on his young defenders.
Quinn’s players almost always empty it. That’s how Kazee wrecked the Jets. Watching him do it reminded me why I believe the Falcons finally can have a great defense in Quinn’s fourth season.
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It’s been building up to this. Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff have a knack for identifying defensive prospects who fit the coach’s style. They’ve steadily added those kinds of players in the draft, sometimes in the later rounds (Kazee was a fifth-round pick last year). They’ve found a few on the college free-agent wire, too.
Quinn boldly let his youngsters take their lumps early as he built a foundation. He’s steadfast in his belief that he and his staff can develop them. Mostly, he’s been right. Quinn knows how to pick them and coach them up.
Now the Falcons are loaded with young defensive talent. The best of the young bunch are veterans: Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and Grady Jarrett. Two of their peers, De’Vondre Campell and Brian Poole, are not weak links. Older pros Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are still playing at a high level.
Quinn finally seems to have the right mix of talent and experience to field a distinguished Falcons defense. The expectation was that he eventually would. He coordinated two dominant Seahawks defenses, especially in 2013. Seattle played very good defense before Quinn ran the unit, but no one doubts he knows how to coach it.
You can make a case that the Falcons made a big leap defensively last season. They ranked ninth in yards allowed per game, 13th in yards per play and eighth in points allowed. Their 2016 ranks in those categories: 25th, 21st and 27th. Just like in 2016, last season’s defense was playing better at the end.
But I wouldn’t say the Falcons were a great defensive team in 2017. Add context, and those top-line results weren’t as impressive.
Football Outsiders measures the “success rate” of each play against league average with adjustments for down and distance, field position, game time and game score. The Falcons ranked just 22nd defensively in FO’s metric, Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average. They ranked 26th in 2016.
Not great but not bad. We’ve seen much worse from the Falcons. The season before Quinn arrived they fielded the league’s worst defense (it wasn’t much better the year before that). They had no real young talent outside of cornerbacks Trufant and Alford.
In Quinn’s first season the Falcons improved from 32nd to 22nd in DVOA. That year Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff drafted Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett, and both immediately showed promise. Quinn got production out of unsung young players such as Ricardo Allen.
You could see Quinn’s defensive vision taking shape in that first season. The Falcons would run and hit (“empty it”), and they would always go for the ball. They just needed more speed and talent.
Quinn and Dimitroff kept adding both. In 2016 they drafted Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and DeVondre’ Campbell and signed college free agent Brian Poole. Those four players all started as rookies (Poole as the nickel back).
Quinn seems to have found another budding star in defensive end Takk McKinley, the first-round pick in 2017. The jury is out on linebacker Duke Riley, who wasn’t good as a rookie after the Falcons took him in the third round.
The Falcons can afford a miss or two because they are budding with young talent. ESPN recently ranked the team’s 25-and-under talent as the 16th best in the league. The Falcons ranked fifth on that same list last year, and now those young players are entering their prime.
They were part of a defense that got better in 2017, though maybe not as good as it seemed. This is the year Quinn finally might field a truly great Falcons defense.