Ignoring a rash of devastating injuries, Falcons coach Dan Quinn felt major changes were needed to the defense and special teams, as both units contributed to the 7-9 finish in 2018.
“Defensively our (in)ability to play at a more physical style,” Quinn said Wednesday. “On the (special) team side, that’s kind of the flagship for everything and where we develop players. At the end, I just felt like our compass was off, and the best and surest way right now was with change.”
He replaced defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong after the season. Quinn will call the defense in 2019, and Ben Kotwica was hired away from Washington to direct the special teams.
With the Falcons’ starting safeties out for most of the season, the defense sank from 22nd to 31st (13.2 percent) in the league in the Defense Adjusted Value of Average (DVOA) ratings by footballoutsiders.com. Only Tampa Bay (14.8 percent) was rated lower than the Falcons.
DVOA measures a team's efficiency by comparing success on every single play with a league average based on situation and opponent.
The Falcons’ pass defense was extremely shaky, and that explains why the team elected to move on from right cornerback Robert Alford and nickel back Brian Poole.
The Falcons ranked 26th in the NFL in defending the opponents No. 1 receiver, who averaged 71.5 yards per game. They ranked 11th against No. 2 wide receivers (44.5 yards per game), 28th against No. 3/other wide receivers (56 yards per game), 18th against tight ends (49.9 yards per game) and 28th against running backs (61.5 yards per game).
Armstrong’s units were not dynamic, as they finished in the bottom half (19th) of the league in Rick Gosselin’s special-teams rankings of 22 categories.
Here's our unit-by-unit review of the 2018 defense and special teams:
Who: Ends – Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley, Brooks Reed (released), Steven Means (re-signed), Bruce Irvin and Derrick Shelby. Tackles – Grady Jarrett, Terrell McClain, Jack Crawford and Deadrin Senat
Contract/free agent situation: The team is working on a long-term deal for Jarrett that projects to be worth between $76 million to $83 million over five years. Beasley is set to receive a $12.8 million fifth-year option or a re-worked extension. Irvin took less money to come home to play for the Falcons last season. Shelby and McClain are set to become free agents.
What they did in season: Beasley and McKinley played hard and tough football, but their production was not very high. Beasley finished with five sacks, and McKinley led the team with seven.
At the NFL trade deadline in October, multiple teams called the Falcons looking to see if the franchise, which had agreed to Beasley’s fifth-year option, were interested in trading the former All-Pro defensive end.
The Falcons held on to Beasley, but want to see more of the big-play ability he flashed earlier in the season against the Ravens. After Jarrett forced a fumble, Beasley scooped up the ball, made a move to get around Ravens running back Kenny Dixon and stuck his hand out before going to the ground. The former high school running back gathered his balance and went on to score from 74 yards out.
McKinley had 5.5 sacks through six games. After a seven-game drought, he recorded only 1.5 sacks over the final two games.
Jarrett played well, as he finished with six sacks and received a 91 grade from analytics site Pro Football
Focus. He was the highest graded Falcons defensive player.
Snap counts: Jarrett (710 defensive snaps), Beasley (700), Crawford (623), McKinley (617), Reed (458), Senat (371), Irvin (220), Means (162), Shelby (135), Michael Bennett (39) and Justin Zimmer (nine).
Who: Deion Jones, DeAndre Campbell, Foye Oluokun, Duke Riley, Bruce Carter (re-signed) and Kemal Ishmael.
Contract/free agent situation: The team elected to re-sign Carter to a one-year contract. Ishmael is set to become a free agent.
What they did in season: When Jones went down with a broken foot in the season opener, Campbell stepped forward and took over the communications role for part of the season. While not making many splash plays, Campbell went on to lead the team in tackles with 94. He also had 1.5 sacks, four tackles for losses and three quarterback hits. Oluokun, who had a successful rookie campaign, unseated Riley and finished second on the team with 89 tackles.
The Falcons liked Oluokun’s length and ability to cover down field. Against the Packers, he broke up a pass 40 yards down the field while covering tight end Jimmy Graham.
The sixth-round pick from Yale played in all 16 games and made seven starts.
Jones returned to play in the final five games of the season and helped stabilize the unit down the stretch. He finished with 53 tackles and two interceptions.
Carter played in 11 games and had 21 tackles and seven special-teams tackles.
Snap counts: Campbell (899 defensive snaps), Oluokun (527), Riley (407), Jones (383), Carter (78), Ishmael (64), Nelson (0) and Jarvis (0).
Who: Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford (released), Brian Poole (not receiving a restricted-free-agent tender), Isaiah Oliver, Justin Bethel and Blidi Wreh-Wilson (re-signed).
Contract/free agent situation: Bethel is set to become a free agent.
What they did in season: Trufant started all 16 games for the fourth time over his career. He’s still looking to return his level of play to 2015, when he made the Pro Bowl for the first time.
He finished with 66 tackles and had 12 pass breakups. He played more than 1,000 snaps, but did not have an interception.
Trufant is signed through 2022.
The current regime had been trying to replace Alford since they arrived and drafted Jalen Collins in the second round of the 2015 draft.
Oliver, who was drafted in the second round last year, is the heir apparent at right cornerback.
Damontae Kazee, who played free safety last season for the injured Ricardo Allen, will move to nickel back.
Snap counts: Trufant (1,059), Alford (957), Poole (831), Oliver (240), Wreh-Wilson (30), Deandre Burton (five) and Bethel (0).
Who: Kazee, Sharrod Neasman, Jordan Richards, Ricardo Allen, Keith Tandy, Keanu Neal and Ryan Neal.
Contract/free-agent situation: Jordan Richards is set to become a free agent.
What they did in season: The back end of the defense suffered a devastating blow when strong safety Keanu Neal was lost with a knee injury in the first game of the season. He provided the unit with its hard-hitting personality in his second season in the NFL and went to the Pro Bowl in 2017.
He was sorely missed.
The Falcons struggled to replace Neal even before Allen went down three games later with a ruptured Achilles against Cincinnati.
Kazee, who was in his second season, took over for Allen, while the Falcons ended up trying to play Richards against the run and Neasman against the pass.
Kazee finished third on the team with 80 tackles. He also had seven interceptions, 10 passes defensed and one forced fumble.
Kazee’s seven interceptions were tied for the league lead with Miami’s Xavien Howard and Chicago’s Kyle Fuller.
Richards finished with 37 tackles and three passes defensed.
The Falcons had traded for Richards earlier in the season and elected not to sign Eric Reid, who was a free agent. They’d talked to him over the offseason, but didn’t re-kindle those talks when they were in need of a safety.
Reid, who knelt during the national anthem with former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, went on to sign with Carolina.
Snap counts: Kazee (990), Neasman (434), Richards (428), Allen (205), K. Neal (37), Tandy (2), R. Neal (0).
Who: Kickers Matt Bryant and Giorgio Tavecchio, Punter Matt Bosher, Long snappers Joe Condo and Josh Harris, kick return Marvin Hall and punt returner Justin Hardy.
Contract/free agent situation: Bryant’s contract will be allowed to expire on March 13. Harris signed a contract extension last season, so Condo likely will not re-sign. Hall and Hardy are set to become free agents.
What they did in season: Bryant, who will turn 44 in May, said he doesn’t plan to retire.
The Falcons will get cheaper at the position by keeping Tavecchio, the injury replacement for Bryant last season who kicked field goals of 50 and 56 yards in the team’s 23-20 victory over the Giants.
Not keeping Bryant will create $2.8 million in salary-cap space for the Falcons.
Bryant made 33 of 35 extra-point attempts and 20 of 21 field-goal attempts. His only miss was on a 53-yard attempt in the swirling winds at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
Bosher averaged 45.5 yards gross per punt and 40.1 net. He placed 22 of 60 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
Bethel led the coverage teams with 14 tackles followed by Ishmael, who had 11.
Hall averaged 23.7 yards on kickoff returns and Hardy averaged 7.4 on kickoff returns.
“I think this is a good unit,” Kotwica said. “I have experience. When I was in Washington, we played Atlanta in the middle of the season. There are definitely some parts to build around.”
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