"Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer."
It's an adage that we're all familiar with, and it holds true in everything. It's one thing to know your own team. It's another entirely to know your team and scout others. This is a big part of what makes a coach's job so hard. Saints fans can no longer enjoy the joys of Mike Smith seemingly actively sabotaging the Falcons' chances to win on any given Sunday, and after what was a very difficult coaching search for Atlanta, they seem to have found their guy: Seattle DC Dan Quinn.
Quinn has done an excellent job in Seattle since he took over for now Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley. His defenses have led the Seahawks to two consecutive Super Bowls, and he did this with a very simple philosophy: If it ain't broken, don't fix it. The Seahawks run the most basic of defensive schemes, a Press Bail Cover 3 out of a 4-3 defense. Richard Sherman locks down a deep third, Earl Thomas takes the middle third, Byron Maxwell takes the final third. The Seahawks' exceptionally laterally quick linebackers and solid front four pass rush take care of the rest.
Seattle Seahawks' 2014 Starting Defense
|Player Name||Height||Weight||40 Time||20 yd. Shuttle Split|
|Cliff Avril (DE)||6'3"||260||4.6|
|Michael Bennett (DE)||6'4"||274||5.0|
|Tony McDaniel (DT)||6'7"||305||5.09|
|Kevin Williams (DT)||6'5"||311||4.81|
|Bruce Irvin (OLB)||6'3"||248||4.5||4.03|
|Bobby Wagner (MLB)||6'||241||4.46||4.24|
|KJ Wright (OLB)||6'4"||246||4.65||4.46|
|Earl Thomas (FS)||5'10"||202||4.43|
|Kam Chancellor (SS)||6'3"||232||4.62|
|Richard Sherman (CB)||6'3"||195||4.56|
|Byron Maxwell (CB)||6'3"||232||4.43|
Atlanta Falcons 2014 Starting Defense
|Player Name||Height||Weight||40 Time||20 yd. Shuttle Split|
|Kroy Biermann (DE)||6'3"||255||4.95|
|Tyson Jackson (DT)||6'4"||296||4.94|
Paul Soliai (DT)
|Jonathan Babineaux (DE)||6'2"||300||4.87|
|Paul Worrilow (LB)||6'1"||232||4.65||3.97|
|Joplo Bartu (LB)||6'2"||230||4.76||4.24|
|Kemal Ishmael (FS)||6'||206||4.54|
|Dwight Lowery (SS)||5'11"||212||4.54|
|Desmond Trufant (CB)||6'||190||4.38|
|Robert McClain (CB)||5'9"||195||4.52|
|Josh Wilson (CB)||5'9"||188||4.39|
The first dilemma presented for Quinn heading from Seattle to Atlanta is the scheme difference. Atlanta ran a 4-2-5 3-4 hybrid defense for much of the year. They also had so much rotation, I just had to pick out their top 11 players by snaps, rather than true starts. Seattle was always consistent in their starters, so they were much easier to pin down. Looking at make-up, Quinn ran a base 4-3 that relied on speed from his ends and size from his tackles designed to plug up the middle (much like literally any 4-3 scheme). He used Chancellor as an enforcer over the intermediate middle third of the field, and buzzed his linebackers to open space. Seattle's linebackers were able to project themselves as much faster than they were because of their cohesion. They ebbed and flowed to the ball as a unit, seemingly covering more space than they were.
The big question heading into 2015 is: Is this style sustainable for the Falcons? The Falcons don't have the personnel that the Seahawks had, particularly the pass rush. I'm using 2013 numbers since it was Quinn's first year in Seattle. Furthermore, Atlanta didn't have Robert McClain for the vast majority of 2014, and he's going to be key for this to work. No simulation is perfect, but Quinn's base scheme revolves around coverage and quick pressure (Note: Atlanta was last in the league in pressure while bringing 4 or less in 2014).
When utilizing a base four man rush, Seattle was third in the league in Pass Rush Productivity (Per PFF). PRP is calculated by sacks, hits, and hurries vs. dropbacks. Seattle sacked the quarterback 28 times, hit him 50 times and hurried him a staggering 135 times in 571 dropbacks, leading to a PRP of 29.2 (behind only the Buffalo Bills and the St. Louis Rams).
In 2013, Atlanta ran a base 4-3 defense. This was, of course, before the additions of Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson in the 2013 offseason, but out of that 4-3 Atlanta was dead last in PRP without the blitz. At 16 sacks, 13 hits and 66 hurries on 389 dropbacks, Atlanta put up a deplorable 19.3 PRP. To Quinn's credit, he isn't a defensive coordinator bound by scheme. As a DC in Florida, Quinn generally catered to his talent, rather than catering his talent to his scheme. However, Atlanta doesn't have the secondary talent to draw plays out for 4 or 5 seconds; they must add a good pass rush for Quinn to truly work in Atlanta.
Heading back to the charts above, the first thing to notice is the consistency in team makeup. The Seahawks used small, quick defensive ends. They also had two corners with intermediate to good speed, a top tier free safety, and a big, physical strong safety. Their linebackers, while not being overwhelmingly quick, were fast, consistent, and all fell within the same size range.
Atlanta, with all of their turnover defensively, didn't have a lot of speed up front. Worrilow is astoundingly quick, but he's the only real standout linebacker on the team. Meanwhile, Trufant was the only notable player in the ATL secondary after the injury to McClain. Free safety should be a high priority for Quinn once he arrives in Atlanta, and SS should be a close second.
Now, it's time to look at the scheme itself. Seattle is a "you've seen one play you've seen them all" type of defense, so I'm going to use the play that ultimately set the tone against Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Broncos are running one of their infamous rub & go plays on this play. It's a 11 formation, and the Seahawks are in a nickel (with Jeremy Lane lining up over the slot). Chancellor is the "robber" on this play, taking away intermediate third, whereas Thomas, Sherman and Maxwell are responsible for the deep thirds.
With no one coming towards Maxwell's area of the field, he begins to work his way in as he recognizes the pick play. Sherman stays on the outside of the near side receiver, forcing him towards Thomas & Chancellor's areas of the field. Chancellor remains isolated on the play, remaining more of a prowler than anything else.
From a different angle, we can see Seahawks' OLB Malcolm Smith playing physically on Julius Thomas, not allowing him a release. Smith and Bobby Wagner are a mere 10 yards apart, giving Manning a minimal window to hit Thomas. The timing of the play is disrupted by Smith as well, and Manning is forced to wait in the pocket and go through his progressions.
Seattle's big interior linemen force Manning to make a decision. He hits Demaryius Thomas on a two yard drag route. As soon as Bam Bam sees Manning cock to make a throw, he starts to make his way down. Note the angle that Chancellor takes to the receiver. Finally, this happens:
Chancellor lays the wood on Thomas, steamrolling him. With how much of Denver's game was in the middle of the field in 2014, this was a huge hit in a game that had started strong for Seattle anyways. Having that constant robber is vital to a Cover 3 defense, as it mitigates the softest point in the defense.
Atlanta, as they are, don't have the personnel to play defense the way that Seattle does. We all know that they'll stock up in the offseason, but they need players like Avril and Chancellor to make this system work. It isn't that they aren't talented. Desmond Trufant is an excellent corner, and Paul Worrilow has been an extremely pleasant surprise in Atlanta. However, Quinn needs to build up the pipeline that Bradley has going from Seattle to Jacksonville is his system has any hope of working. Obviously he'll make tweaks as he goes (perhaps he'll even stay with the hybrid defense that Atlanta has going there), but the Falcons have a long way to go before they have the talent necessary to run such a talent driven defense. If it does all come together, ATL could be a team to fear come 2015.
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