Falcons’ emerging defense could lead the way

Manuel feeling good heading into second season
Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel works with his defense during team practice on Sunday, August 6, 2017, in Flowery Branch. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel works with his defense during team practice on Sunday, August 6, 2017, in Flowery Branch. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

The Falcons defense may give Marquand Manuel reason to dance - and more than just to the Miami bass sound that was blasting from the speakers at a recent practice.

The chorus: “Take it to the house. Take it to the house. That’s the way…” by South Florida rapper Trick Daddy had the defensive coordinator, a Miami native, grooving through the stretching lines, on beat and flipping a football up in the air and catching it.

He was trying to get the defensive players fired up for another day of practice near the end of a tough, hot and sticky training camp.

“I’m really pleased with how the guys are going about getting themselves ready for the first game,” Manuel told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s going to come a lot faster than what a lot of people think.”

Manuel knows he’s in charge of an emerging unit that boasts four players that have reached a Pro Bowl in defensive end Vic Veasley, linebacker Deion Jones, safety Keanu Neal and cornerback Desmond Trufant. The defense also has at least two future potential Pro Bowlers in defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell.

“Having the ability to have a linebacker that can run to the left or to the right,” Manuel said. “Having a safety that can do everything that the linebacker can do. The ability to have all that and have a three technique in Grady, who can not only stop the run, but create penetration in the quarterback’s face.”

Manuel knows that he has options.

“I think, from that standpoint, understanding where I came from, the pressure up front starts everything,” Manuel said. “The ability to now blitz and cover with Deion. Keanu can cover tight ends and backs. Keanu can play in the middle of the field and enforce in the run game. I think that flexibility gives us a lot of things that we can possibly do.”

The only glaring potential weakness is at defensive tackle where the Falcons, in a show of fiscal restraint, lost defensive tackle Dontari Poe to Carolina in free agency. The line also lost defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who signed with New England in free agency. Second-year defensive end Takkarrist McKinley is projected to slide into his spot.

“One of the things that we talked about was understanding that right now we lost guys up front and we are replacing them,” Manuel said. “How do we do that? We have to stop the run first. Get off the field on third downs, have good red zone defense and create turnovers.”

By moving Beasley back to defensive end, the Falcons are counting on him and McKinley to provide an outside pass rush. Inside, Jarrett and Jack Crawford performed well in the exhibition season rushing inside.

“To play our defense, it’s about getting after the quarterback,” Manuel said. “The easiest (path to the quarterback) is always over the ball, but when you can put pressure on the outside and also in the inside with the things we can do and the things that Grady naturally can do, you create a lot of different problems.”

McKinley, who’s coming off his second shoulder surgery, had six sacks while playing 401 snaps last season.

“Takk is coming into his own,” Manuel said. “Vic is getting polished. Those two and Brooks Reed and now you start throwing in guys and now you’ve collectively have a unit.”

Manuel also plans to use defensive linemen Derrick Shelby and Terrell McClain in the defensive line rotation.

“You have got guys coming in to create that confusion,” Manuel said. “I’m excited.”

Campbell’s versatility and blend of size and speed allows him to stay on the field for three downs.

“Much respect to Dre,” Manuel said. “It’s been exciting to watch him work on his pass rush. Watch him work on his coverage and have his run fits, playing (strongside) backer and he has the ability to move at every position. That only adds to our defense.”

Cornerbacks Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant get their hands on a lot of passes. The Falcons would like to see some of their pass breakups turn into interceptions.

Alford has 20 pass breakups, but just one interception last season. Trufant had 12 pass breakups and two interceptions. Nickel back Brian Poole had four pass breakups, but no interceptions.

That’s 36 pass breakups and three interceptions from the top three cornerbacks.

“We are putting ourselves in position to make plays,” Manuel said.

Trufant spent part of the offseason working with the wide receivers to improve his hands.

“I’m just trying to take my game every higher,” Trufant said. “Get my hands on the ball more. Eliminate all the big plays. Really focus on my technique so that I know I can definitely take my game up even higher.”

Alford worked out with former NFL cornerback Ryan Clark over the offseason.

“I feel like the sky is the limit,” Alford said. “I feel like last year we showed what we can become. I think this year we’re going to progress to that elite defense that we want to be.”

Trufant also believes the defense will be stronger.

“The sky is the limit,” Trufant said. “We are veterans on the team now. So, we know the defense. We know what to expect. We know how teams are going to attack us. We all know our strengths and we’ve got a lot of them. We have to play together and stay healthy.”

Manuel believes the corners and the rest of the secondary will be fine, too.

“The accountability that they’ve stepped up with, owning what we call, everyone else say it’s a no fly zone,” Manuel said. “We always talk about it and say we only fly nice planes. We don’t let the ball go over our heads. That’s one thing that we understand.”

If things goes as plan, Manuel will dancing a lot more in practice.