Still no defense for Dan Quinn’s Falcons

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons coach Dan Quinn addresses the team's 0-4 start following loss to Green Bay.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Dan Quinn’s predecessor as Falcons coach, Mike Smith, lost his job after back-to-back losing seasons. He made some game-management blunders, same as Quinn. But bad defense was the main issue for Smith’s final two Falcons teams. Quinn was supposed to build a great defense to go with the star-powered offense.

Six years later, and he’s never done it. The defense has been bad more often than good. That undercuts the logic for hiring Quinn in the first place. It’s the reason he may not make it to a seventh season, though you never can tell with team owner Arthur Blank.

The Falcons went to Lambeau Field for “Monday Night Football” and couldn’t stop Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He pretty much did what he wanted as Green Bay beat the Falcons 30-16. The Falcons are 0-4 for the first time since 1999, and there’s little reason to believe they can recover.

“In my heart and in my head and everything I believe in, I know that we can,” Quinn said. “I know the second quarter of season will look a lot different than first. Nothing has been decided yet.”

His point was that the Falcons play their first division game Sunday, vs. Carolina. I’d say it’s already been established the Falcons don’t have a good defense. They entered the game ranked 31st among 32 NFL teams in points allowed. Only the Cowboys have been worse, and they beat the Falcons in Week 2.

There were mitigating circumstances for the Falcons on Monday. They were down four defensive backfield starters for the start of the game. They lost two safeties to injuries during the game. Wide receiver Julio Jones didn’t play after halftime. Quinn’s good injury luck from early in his tenure has turned bad.

The Falcons would have some leeway with their record if they hadn’t blown leads to the Cowboys and Bears. The problems would be the same, though. The defense figured heavily in squandering those games. The Cowboys scored on seven of their final eight possessions. The Bears scored three consecutive touchdowns before running out the clock on the Falcons.

That theme carried over to the start of Monday’s game. Rodgers passed incomplete on the first play, then Green Bay marched for a touchdown while never facing a third down. After a Falcons three-and-out, their defense had one fine moment.

The Packers quickly moved from their 34-yard line to first-and-goal. The Falcons made a stand. They stuffed running back Aaron Jones twice, stopped Darrius Shepperd from a TD catch and then smothered Jamaal Williams for no gain on fourth-and-1.

Before that stop, it looked as if the Packers would make quick work of the visitors. The Falcons had gone three-and-out twice. Both drives ended on late throws by Matt Ryan to Ridley on third down. But after the goal-line stop, Ryan got the Falcons going with sharp passes to Russell Gage and Hayden Hurst.

Ryan kept that drive going by converting two fourth downs with his legs. On the first one, Ryan shuffled in the pocket to get away from pressure and passed to Julio Jones for a 19-yard gain. On the next one, Ryan ran for six yards on fourth-and-3 to Green Bay’s 5-yard line.

The Falcons kicked a field goal after three cracks at the end zone. That was a letdown for a 20-play drive that began at their 1-yard line. But trailing 7-3 was a lot better than 14-0. The good feelings didn’t last.

Rodgers discovered he could make hay by throwing short passes and letting his receivers and backs work against the shaky coverage. The Packers would score two more touchdowns before halftime. The Falcons were still in the game after the first one despite going three-and-out on three of four possessions.

The Packers got the ball at midfield with less than two minutes until halftime. That’s when the MNF broadcast displayed a graphic indicting the Falcons' defense. Since 2016, the Falcons had allowed the second-most points (211) among NFL teams within the final two minutes before halftime.

“That is not something that you want up on the screen below your picture, that’s for sure,” ESPN commentator Brian Griese said as the camera focused on Quinn. “Especially as a defensive head coach.”

Not long after that, the Packers made it 218 points. Rodgers made three short passes that turned into nice gains, including Robert Tonyan’s touchdown catch for a 20-3 lead. Each time the Falcons scored after halftime the Packers matched them.

That’s how it goes for the Falcons. Their “defensive head coach” has another bad defensive team. The best year was 2017, when the Falcons were eighth in points allowed. Injuries could be blamed for the defensive collapse in 2018. They were a factor on Monday night, too. But Quinn’s long-term track record gives no reason to believe the Falcons can play good defense consistently even when the injury report is short.

The Falcons have tried to build up the defense. They used a lot of draft picks on defensive backs and still can’t cover. They paid a lot of money for pass rusher Dante Fowler and still don’t pressure passers consistently. Quinn gave up the defensive calls midseason in 2019 and made Raheem Morris coordinator for 2020. The defense still is struggling.

The communication issues that hurt the Falcons for half of 2019 resurfaced Monday night. No one covered Aaron Jones on his 6-yard TD catch to end Green Bay’s first drive. Several short catches by the Packers turned into long gains because no defenders were near. I’m guessing the missing personnel contributed to the mix-ups but, again, the Falcons have the same issues when they are whole.

“We’ve got to be able to execute,” Quinn said. “On some of the mistakes, we know they are correctable and we’ll get those corrected.”

The Falcons can compete when their offense plays great. That didn’t happen at Green Bay. The Packers also had injuries in their secondary. Ryan couldn’t take advantage. He made some shaky throws and never quite looked comfortable. That left the Falcons with little chance because this defense can’t be expected to carry them.

Optimists may look at the schedule over the next five weeks and make a case for a Falcons surge. The Falcons play Carolina (2-2) twice during that stretch. The Vikings, Lions and Broncos all are 1-3. But it’s hard to think about the Falcons going on a run when they are 0-4, injured and haven’t had a good defensive performance yet.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this six seasons later with Quinn. He’d been coordinator for great defenses in Seattle. The Falcons played some good defense on the way to the 2017 Super Bowl, though that group benefited from feeding off an all-time great offense. The 2017 Falcons were strong on defense late in the season, but lost a playoff game at Philadelphia despite allowing only 15 points.

The Falcons have played a lot of bad defense since then. This season could end up being worst of all.

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