What happened to the Falcons defense?
The Falcons have a 1-7 record at the halfway point of the season and won’t drop to 1-8 on Sunday because they have a bye.
The collapse of the defense, which has been outscored 144-50 in the first halves of games, was unexpected.
“They are the most disappointing team in the league,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said to The Atlanta Journal Constitution on Thursday.
He noted that not much was expected from Miami (0-7), Washington (1-7) and Cincinnati (0-8).
But the Falcons have star power and went to the Super Bowl only three seasons ago.
“You can line up (quarterback) Matt Ryan, (wide receiver) Julio Jones and (center) Alex Mack,” Baldinger said. “You can line up some really good football players, good players for a long period of time.”
But the Falcons are not getting any favorable results. Their lone win was in Week 2 against Philadelphia.
With coach Dan Quinn taking over as defensive coordinator, the return of key starters in linebacker Deion Jones, free safety Ricardo Allen and strong safety Keanu Neal, the unit was expected to at least be respectable.
But the defense ranks 27th in the NFL in total yards allowed, 379.5 yards per game. With a repeated theme of blown coverages and missed tackles, the Falcons have given up 31 pass plays of 20 yards or more (seventh in the league) and their 19 touchdown passes allowed ranks 31st in the league.
“The breakdowns on the back end, you’re just giving them touchdowns,” said Baldinger, who called the Falcons’ game against Seattle on Sunday for Compass’ national radio broadcast. “It just can’t happen on the back end. You give up touchdowns and explosive plays on defense when your secondary either breaks down or they miss tackles. All explosive plays on defense come down to the secondary.”
Quinn took over coordinating the defense from Marquand Manuel, who was fired.
Manuel, a former NFL defensive back, also worked intimately with the defensive backs. Manuel, a former player, would put on his cleats, get on the field and work on techniques with players.
While he couldn’t get cornerback Robert Alford to stop holding, rarely were Manuel’s guys confused or drastically out of position.
The secondary could use some help from the pass rush, which has only seven sacks this season (last in the league).
“It would help if we saw some development from (outside linebacker) Vic Beasley,” Baldinger said. “If we saw some development from (defensive end) Takk McKinley, but I can’t honestly say that I’ve seen development.”
The Falcons had three sacks and 10 quarterback hits against the Eagles.
“I haven’t seen any kind of pass rush on a consistent basis,” Baldinger said.
Also, Baldinger has posted several videos on social media of the Falcons’ lining up incorrectly or blowing coverages
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is not a fan of @BaldyNFL on Twitter.
“I’m not here to trash Dan Quinn,” Baldinger said. “I talked to Thomas Dimitroff on Sunday. He’s not happy with some of things I posted, but when the team was going to the Super Bowl, I couldn’t have done enough on Alex Mack, Matt Ryan and all of the guys and (wide receiver) Calvin Ridley last year. I couldn’t have done enough positive things on the overall team.
“I don’t go out there looking for negative things. Generally, all of my breakdowns are positive. It’s based on effort and technique. But when there are consistent breakdowns, when a team is really disappointing and the same things keep coming up, I can’t just stay quiet.”
Baldinger isn’t the only analyst dismayed by the Falcons’ performance.
“Defensively, they are not getting pressure on quarterbacks,” analyst Solomon Wilcots said on SiriusXM NFL radio. “They are not tackling. There are plays that warrant the questions put to Dan Quinn, ‘Is this team quitting on you.’ I saw people walking into the end zone for the Rams without much resistance put up by the Atlanta Falcons’ defense.
“He even agreed the question was warranted based on what we are seeing. When I watch them play, I can see why that question would be asked. Now, if you’re a head coach, that question ought to really bother you. It ought to really burn because the one thing as a coach that you ought to be able to do is get your players to play and get them to play hard.”
Wilcots played safety for the Bengals, Vikings and Steelers from 1987-92. He’s also having a hard time watching the Falcons’ secondary.
“Whew,” Wilcots said. “It’s brutal.”
There’s a picture on Twitter of the Falcons’ security guard throwing up his hands in disgust as he watches a wide open DK Metcalf, of Seattle, catch one of his two touchdown passes Sunday.
Eight games into the season, the Falcons should not have so many blown coverages.
“On the first (Metcalf touchdown), yeah, not getting set and came out of the huddle and quick-counted us,” Quinn said. “We had been prepared for that. The Rams had a long history of doing that. We just practiced quite a bit of that the week prior.”
So, the defense was not set and ready to play on the first one.
“On the second one, we were going to play two players in a certain way, and a miscommunication took place amongst two players,” Quinn said. “Obviously, there’s a bust that took place somehow in some way.”
Baldinger pointed out that it was same play from the same formation.
“It was the same mistake twice in a row,” said Baldinger, who played in the NFL from 1982-93 with the Cowboys, Colts and Eagles.
The Falcons have stressed “competitive toughness” while scouting players. Under former coach Mike Smith they valued “football intelligence.” A mixture of the two philosophies may be in order.
“The Houston game (Oct. 6), you can pick out any game, and you can just see the mental mistakes and the breakdowns,” Baldinger said. “It’s just really, outside of the rookie from Ohio State (Kendall Sheffield), they are all veteran players back there. ... It should not be happening.”
Neal was lost for the season when he suffered a torn Achilles in the third game of the season against the Colts on Sept. 22.
A strong safety can clean up a lot of mistakes.
In 2006, when the hard-hitting Bob Sanders missed 12 regular-season games, the Colts allowed a league-worst 5.3 yards per carry. When he returned for the playoffs, the Colts made a dramatic turnaround and wound up winning the Super Bowl. Sanders, who coach Tony Dungy called “The Eraser,” received much of the credit.
In Dungy’s eyes, Sanders erased mistakes of other defenders with his bone-rattling hits.
Against Seattle, the Falcons played cornerbacks Blidi-Wreh Wilson and Isaiah Oliver outside and Sheffield in the slot. Free safeties Allen and Damontae Kazee at the safety spots. Strong safeties Kemal Ishmael and Jamal Carter played 17 and 18 percent of the snaps.
Quinn clearly was perturbed by the Metcalf touchdowns.
“It made it worse because we were trying to do something that we don’t do,” Quinn said. “Don't make ‘fill in the blank’ up.”
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