It’s good to see Falcons focused on defensive guys for head coach

Bill Belichick is among many such candidates
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick against the Denver Broncos of an NFL football game Sunday December 24, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/Bart Young)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick against the Denver Broncos of an NFL football game Sunday December 24, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/Bart Young)

Maybe Arthur Blank already has decided Bill Belichick will be his next coach. If so, then the Falcons owner is doing a good job of putting on a show to suggest otherwise. The Falcons have interviewed 13 candidates so far. Only Belichick has completed a second interview, but they’ve requested to talk to at least five other candidates again.

If Belichick isn’t in the bag for the Falcons, then it’s weird that he hasn’t interviewed for any other openings so far. Would Belichick really wait around with no assurances? Belichick will be 72 years old soon and no longer has Tom Brady as his quarterback. Still, is it really possible that none of the five teams with open head coach positions are interested in a candidate with six Super Bowl rings?

Those are among the reasons to believe Belichick is in the bag for the Falcons. In any event, if the Falcons don’t hire Belichick, the chances are good that the next head coach will have a defensive background like him.

Two of the seven candidates they are said to want for a second interview are offensive guys: Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Lions coordinator Ben Johnson. The other five are defensive guys: Raheem Morris (Rams defensive coordinator), Mike Macdonald (Ravens DC), Ejiro Evero (Panthers DC), Anthony Weaver (Ravens defensive line) and Aaron Glenn (Lions DC).

That’s a positive development for the Falcons. Much of the focus is on how they will go about improving their offense. A better quarterback will get them most of the way there. The Falcons’ defense improved this season after the addition of key veterans. The next Falcons head coach will have to get more out of that the defense with essentially the same players.

It’s good that the Falcons are focused on candidates with the experience and expertise to help make that happen. The standouts in that regard are Belichick, Macdonald, Weaver and Morris.

Belichick couldn’t win in New England without Brady, but the defense was good as usual. Macdonald and Weaver are the key coaches for the league’s best defense (Weaver also has an associate head coach title). Morris helped the Rams maintain a playoff-caliber defense after key veterans departed.

The Falcons had a good offense not so long ago. You’ve got to think far back to remember the last time they truly were good on defense. The Falcons were able to mask their defensive issues for a while this season. They ended up ranked 18th in points allowed, and even that mediocre number overstates their true performance.

The Falcons ranked 24th in defensive DVOA (which measures efficiency adjusted for opponent and situation). They lost four games this season after leading in the fourth quarter. The Falcons ranked 29th in takeaways (16). The best way to improve that number is to increase the rates of sacks (19th in sacks per pass attempt this season) and passes defended (tied for 25th).

The Falcons won’t do that by acquiring a star edge rusher. Or at least they shouldn’t. They need to use their draft pick capital to get a quarterback. Besides, there doesn’t appear to be an edge rusher in this draft worthy of the No. 8 pick if the Falcons keep it instead of trading it to move up and get one of the top QB prospects.

The Falcons are projected to have about $25 million in salary-cap space. They can clear more space, but not enough to sign one of the top pass rushers on the market. The Falcons will have to figure out how to generate a pass rush without a star on the edge.

Macdonald and Weaver have done that in Baltimore. The Ravens ranked No. 4 in sacks per pass attempt this season. None of their edge rushers ranked among the top 32 in the league as judged by Pro Football Focus before the season.

Belichick’s defenses usually add up to more than the sum of their parts. The Patriots didn’t have a defender voted to the Pro Bowl in 2023. Yet they ranked 15th in points allowed and ninth in defensive DVOA. We don’t know if Belichick can get good results from a defensive roster that he didn’t build to his specifications, but no coach has earned more benefit of the doubt.

The question for Belichick and all the Falcons’ coaching candidates with defensive backgrounds is whether they can bring a good coordinator to Flowery Branch with them. That’s no small thing. Should the Falcons draft a quarterback, they’ll need a coordinator who can put him in the best situation to succeed. They need a play-caller who can construct a better passing game.

It won’t be easy for a defensive head coach to find a proven offensive coordinator. All the good ones are staying with their teams or taking head coaching jobs. The next Falcons head coach might have to turn over his young offense to a coach who’s never run a unit before. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – Bobby Slowik did good work as a first-time coordinator in Houston this season – but it’s obviously important to get the hire right.

Blank has had a lot of success with head coaches who specialize in defense. Mike Smith made the playoffs in four of his first five seasons. Dan Quinn won an NFC championship and nearly went back to the conference title game after blowing the Super Bowl. Blank replaced Quinn with ex-offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who produced subpar offenses during two of his three losing seasons.

Now it appears that Blank will hire another head coach with a defensive background. I see that as a good thing. Everybody knows the Falcons need to juice their passing game with a better quarterback and a new offensive architect. But they also can use a head coach with the chops to make an improved defense even better. Blank has some good ones to choose from.

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