Falcons in trouble if defensive backs still can’t cover

Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf catches a touchdown pass against Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver during the second half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The Falcons are supposed to have a deep group of defensive backs by now. With good drafting and player development, Desmond Trufant wouldn’t have been the best cornerback of a bad group in 2019. His departure wouldn’t have left them lacking in pass coverage now.

At this point, I wonder if it’s fixable.

Six defensive backs on the most current two-deep depth chart were drafted by the Falcons. Half of them were picked 58th overall or higher. And yet the Falcons spent much of last season struggling to play tight coverage. It happened again during Sunday’s 38-25 loss to Seattle.

Once Russell Wilson was done with them, the Falcons had the NFL’s worst Week 1 pass-defense mark in the Football Outsiders efficiency rating (adjusted by game situation and opponent). Wilson is great. But I’m betting Dak Prescott, a lesser QB than Wilson, will have similar results Sunday if the Falcons can’t close the space between his passes and their targets.

Prescott, like Wilson, is a mobile QB who throws a good deep ball. Unlike Wilson, Prescott has a top-tier wide receiver, Amari Cooper, and a deep group of pass catchers. The list includes running back Ezekiel Elliott, who is hard to get down once he catches the ball.

There’s always lots of discussion about the Falcons' pass rush being ineffective for years. There probably should be more focus on how they’ve tried and failed to assemble a good group of defensive backs. The Falcons' pass rush affected Wilson. The problem was that Wilson never had to fit throws into tight spaces.

Player tracking data confirmed what my eyes told me. According to Next Gen Stats, Wilson completed 22 of 23 passes with two touchdowns against man-to-man coverage. None of Wilson’s 35 passes were thrown into a tight window, defined as less than one yard of separation between receiver and defender.

A big question for this season is whether the Falcons have enough defensive backs who can stick with their man. The Seattle game suggests they don’t. The Falcons were good against the run and didn’t allow Wilson to sit comfortably in the pocket. Soft coverage was the main issue.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn saw it differently. He said the problem was less that the Falcons couldn’t keep up with Seattle’s pass catchers, and more that they showed Wilson their hand before the snap.

“I think we made it too easy in terms of disguise,” Quinn said. "That would be really more along the lines I would think of: (the importance) of having multiple looks in coverage for a quarterback who is as accurate as Russ is. I’d say that’s for sure (that’s) one that we’d like to have over and do different.

“Not just tighter (coverage) but more adjustments, more variations.”

One week into the season, and the Falcons already are talking about mixing up their calls to help their defensive backs. That’s not ideal for a secondary that spent the first half of 2019 confused about assignments. At some point, Falcons defensive backs just need to cover their guys.

They couldn’t do it against Seattle. Credit Wilson. Yet it’s not as if he has a great group of receivers. A team with effective pass coverage should better control Seattle’s receivers.

Seattle coach Pete Carroll long has been criticized for deploying a run-focused offense. The Seahawks came out throwing against the Falcons.

“Certainly for Seattle, a team that really had come in with a heavy emphasis on the run, for them to throw the ball as effectively as they did that was a real factor in this game,” Quinn said.

Maybe it’s the case that the Seahawks are changing their style this season to let Wilson do his thing. Or maybe they looked at the Falcons' secondary and figured they were better off passing. The Cowboys might be thinking the same thing. They managed only 17 points and 6.8 yards per pass attempt in a loss to the Rams, but L.A. has a good secondary.

There are good things the Falcons can salvage from the Week 1 wreckage. Seattle had 84 yards rushing on 20 carries, with one run longer than 15 yards. Falcons pass rushers buzzed around Wilson (though they sacked him only once on 26 drop backs after Seattle’s first possession). The pass coverage was the only major issue. It was so bad that the Falcons couldn’t stop Seattle early or during winning time.

The Falcons have plenty of talent in their defensive backfield. They just don’t have guys who’ve proved they can cover. That’s the case despite multiple efforts to draft and develop defensive backs.

Rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell is the latest. He played every defensive snap against Seattle and got schooled a few times. The Falcons will let Terrell learn on the job. He was good at staying close to his man at Clemson.

Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver wasn’t good in 2019, his first season as a starter. Oliver is a big and long cornerback, which Quinn tends to favor, but he’s relatively slow for his position. Seattle’s DK Metcalf beat Oliver off the line and ran away from him for a 38-yard touchdown on fourth-and-5. That play got the Seahawks going again after they’d punted on three consecutive possessions.

The Falcons' cornerback play has steadily declined since Trufant and Robert Alford were a good tandem. Quinn inherited them in 2015 and immediately started adding players who better fit the style he wanted to play. But they remained starters for multiple seasons, Alford through 2018 and Trufant through last season.

The Falcons haven’t found cornerbacks as good as those two were at their peak.

They missed badly on cornerback Jalen Collins, a second-round pick in 2015. He gave the Falcons little production before they released him after his second NFL suspension for violating the PED policy. Quinn switched Dez Southward to cornerback after the Falcons took him as a safety in the third round of the 2014 draft. Southward was released before the end of the 2015 season and played just one more NFL game, in 2017.

Those kind of player-personnel errors eventually catch up. The Falcons couldn’t afford too many mistakes as they started signing their top players to big contract extensions. Their salary cap tightened because of those deals, plus some blunders on free-agent contracts.

Trufant is gone, “dead money” is eating up significant cap space and the Falcons spent free-agent money on other priorities. That left them banking on better play from incumbents, and immediate help from a rookie, to improve the secondary.

There’s plenty of room for growth, which is another way of saying the floor is low if that doesn’t happen.

The Falcons need Oliver to figure it out. They need Terrell to develop quickly. They need cornerback Kendall Sheffield to translate his speed into tighter coverage (he missed Sunday’s game with an injury). They need turnover chances created from the rotating safety trio of Damontae Kazee, Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen.

The Falcons can disguise their coverage but, at some point, they just need their defensive backs to stay tight to their man. The pass coverage started to slip in 2017. It bottomed out last season. This happened even as the Falcons continuously added talent via the draft.

The coverage was bad again Sunday. After the Falcons have spent so much time and resources on fixing the problem to no avail, maybe they just can’t.

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