Jerome Henderson, the Falcons' defensive passing game coordinator/secondary coach, on the approach to the 2019 season. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

Falcons’ turnaround on defense starts with being more physical

The numbers and rankings were downright hideous: Scoring defense (25th of 32), total yards allowed (28th), rushing yards allowed (25th), passing yards allowed (27th); third-down conversion rate (48.72 percent, 31st) and red-zone scoring (70.37 percent, 28th). 

A slightly respectable showing and perhaps their 7-9 record would have been 9-7. A bigger jump and perhaps the Falcons would have been in the wild-card race. 

The Falcons made changes. Defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel was terminated, and coach Dan Quinn planned to take over the defensive play-calling. 

“He’s terrific,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said of Quinn’s defensive play-calling. “He was great in Seattle. He’s been great everywhere that he’s been.”

Zimmer is expected a different unit when the Falcons face the Vikings in the season opener at 1 p.m. Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. 

“Typically, that style of defense that they run, you get fast guys that keep a lot of eyes on the football and really make it tough for an offense to go a long way,” said Zimmer, who calls the defense for the Vikings. “I think that’s why they are always typically in the top 10 defensively in the league.” 

After last season, the Falcons came up with a plan to restore some pride in the unit. 

“The big point that Dan made to us was that the defense didn’t look physical last year,” Falcons defensive passing-game coordinator Jerome Henderson said. “He didn’t think we looked like a defense that would knock people back and be in people’s faces. (It) wasn’t want he wanted or what he expects.”

Six of the 11 starters (54.5 percent) in the regular-season finale from last season were replaced, with one, Damontae Kazee, moving to nickel back.

Defensive end Steven Means is injured, but started for Takk McKinley. Defensive end Brooks Reed, defensive end Bruce Irvin, cornerback Robert Alford and safety Jordan Richards were released or not re-signed.

“Our challenge this offseason was to bring physicalness back to our defense,” Henderson said. “More in-your-face attitude back to our defense.”

The Falcons gave up so many third-down conversions because they couldn’t slow rushing attacks. 

“When you look at us last year, Dan felt like we got mushed a lot up front,” Henderson said. “When you looked at it, they were falling forward for 4- and 5-yard gains a lot, and that does put you behind the sticks a lot. It allows their offense to dictate the pace of the game and keeps our offense off the field, and that’s a recipe for disaster in this league.”

The Falcons have focused on playing stronger on earlier downs so that they can get some more favorable third-and-long situations.

“When third downs are long, you have a better chance of getting off the grass when you just look at the pure numbers,” Henderson said. “We obviously have to win first down and be able to knock people back and put into people’s minds that you’re not going to come in against us and be able to have your way, again we thought they did that last year.”

The Falcons have also stressed communication on defense. 

“We’ve worked really hard at that space almost to the players where they get tired and we’re like, OK, you’re mic’d up today and we want to hear their communication at practice,” Quinn said. “I’ve done that a good bit this training camp. Again, to force the issue of communication.”

From the improved communications, the Falcons hope to play faster.  

“The more you see us pointing and talking, the faster we’ll play,” Quinn said. “If you see us play fast, that’s when some of our takeaways will occur due to that speed where they can really let it rip.”

About the only thing good that came of out last season for the defense was that the Falcons found two players in Kazee and weakside linebacker Foye Oluokun. 

“As tough as it was, maybe we don’t know that without going through that experience,” Quinn said about Kazee’s ability to come up with seven interceptions. “Certainly brought a lot more experience for Foye.”

Oluokun, a sixth-round pick from Yale, finished second on the team in tackles with 89.

With strong safety Keanu Neal (knee), free safety Ricardo Allen (Achilles) and middle linebacker Deion Jones (broken foot) back from injury, the unit has three key members. 

Neal will help add the physical presence. Allen will make sure that everyone is aligned correctly. Jones, who came back for the final five games last season, didn’t play in the exhibition season, but will start the regular season.

Now, the Falcons must put things together in-season. 

“We are going to start with our nature and with what we plan to do and how we are going to play,” Henderson said. “Again, we are going to go and try to be the most physical team and knock them back.”

Quinn and his defensive staff did a lot of experimenting over the offseason. While the team plans to stay a traditional 4-3 team, they looked at some new exotic schemes. Quinn said the experimentation was required because the Falcons play eight games against mobile quarterbacks, who can run or either run a lot of read-pass option plays. 

But being physical is where things will start. 

“There are a number of factors that go into that,” Henderson said. “We lost a couple of really good players in the middle of the defense. That hurt. We lost our strong safety’s presence in there, Keanu Neal. He is one of the guys who’s a pacesetter for us from a physicalness standpoint. We lost him. We lost communication in there and not a lot of good things happened for us obviously.

“We think we’ve gotten better with that. We’ve preached communications. We are going to try and put that on display on Sunday.”

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