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Eagle Eye: Breaking Down The Falcons' Defense

The Atlanta Falcons are a going to be a great test for the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field.

A rematch from January’s Divisional Round, this game features two teams with very similar identities on both sides of the ball. On offense, both squads leverage voluminous run games with a deep assortment of personnel groupings to attack opponents in a number of ways. On defense, both units employ aggressive four-man fronts that don’t rely on blitzing but are extremely aggressive and competitive at all three levels to try and bring the attack to the offense.

I want to focus here on head coach Dan Quinn’s defense and build off of what we saw from this team in 2017. If you start with my preview of this unit from back in January, you’ll read my thoughts about them both schematically and from a personnel standpoint. It’s a fun group to study on film. How has this defense evolved from just a few months ago? Let’s run through a quick refresher of what this team will bring to the Linc.

This is a fast, aggressive defensive front. Defensive ends Brooks Reed and Derrick Shelby are the starters on the edge, with 3-technique defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and nose tackle Terrell McClain holding things down on the interior. Former first-round pass rushers Takkarist McKinley and Vic Beasley rotate in often, providing that front four with a shot in the arm on passing downs. The important thing to note is that this isn’t a heavy-volume blitz operation. They’ll mix in pressures every once in a while (typically with nickel blitzes off the edge), but they rely on stunts and twists with the front four to get home.

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Beasley, a top-10 selection out of Clemson in 2015, is one of the more dynamic pass rushers in the league with his explosive first step and freaky flexibility off the edge. A high school running back who turned into an All-American in college as a pass rusher, Beasley has bounced between defensive end and strongside linebacker throughout his career with the Falcons. He’s not a three-down player to this point (at under 250 pounds) but he is a threat to get home on every single play because of those physical tools.

McKinley is a bowling ball of razor blades off the edge. He was not a technician as a first-round pick out of UCLA in 2017, and he has not reached that status yet, but with his blend of speed and power, he’s a tough assignment in protection. Like former Eagle Trent Cole, McKinley is relentless once the ball is snapped and will make a lot of high-effort plays in his career. While Shelby, a stout run defender, and Reed, a high-motor technician, line up as the starters, Beasley and McKinley are the two edge rushers to be wary of on Thursday night.

Let’s look at the defensive tackles. Jarrett had a bit of a breakout campaign last fall. The former fifth-round pick is very disruptive both against the run and the pass thanks to his quickness, snap anticipation, and ability to win off the ball with a quick swim move. Jarrett can get overwhelmed at times in the run game by double teams, but he will slip them as well thanks to his balance and light feet. He’ll get his share of snaps.

The addition of Terrell McClain is a welcome one thanks to the loss of Dontari Poe in free agency. McClain is a seasoned veteran who offers a little bit of pass rush but is more known for his ability to defend the run. He’s the starter at nose tackle right now, but they have a rookie who I expect will have that job sooner rather than later.

Deadrian Senat, a third-round pick out of South Florida who played alongside Eagles rookie Bruce Hector in college, has impressed this summer. Going back and reviewing my notes of him from his days with the Bulls, everything seems to be translating well to the pro game. Senat isn’t offering a ton as a pass rusher out of the box, but he’s got violent hands, is really stout at the point of attack, is always square to the line of scrimmage, and plays with a high level of urgency. He fits in well with that team and that scheme.

Let’s transition to the linebacker level, where Deion Jones leads a fast, aggressive group in the middle of this Falcons defense. I talked about Jones this week on my Scouting Report segment on the Eagle Eye in the Sky podcast, as he’s really blossomed into one of the top linebackers in the league. Coming out of LSU, Jones exhibited not only great athleticism and closing speed, but also physicality and competitiveness. That combination has really helped turn him into a dynamic force at the second level. Jones is an outstanding zone coverage player and will match up on running backs out of the backfield as well.

Jones’ aggressiveness can be used against him, however. In this scheme, they ask their linebackers to attack, attack, attack. That fast-flow mentality, reacting to the first thing you see at the snap of the ball, can result in high-variance play. You’re going to get some explosive tackles for loss, but you’ll also get some plays where you’re completely removed from the action. Doug Pederson and his coaching staff did a great job in the playoff game last winter of preying on that aggressiveness.

Does that mean every backfield motion, pulling lineman, or play-action fake is going to confuse Jones and the rest of these linebackers? Absolutely not. In fact, Jones has proven that he can sniff out these kinds of plays with regularity. His athleticism allows him to overcome the occasional misread or false step, and he has the ability to make plays from sideline to sideline on a consistent basis.

Lining up next to Jones is De’Vondre Campbell, a player I was high on coming out of Minnesota in 2016. The third-year player has impressive size and athletic ability. Campbell is also a high-motor player who plays through the echo of the whistle much like Jones, Senat, and Jarrett. Campbell’s instincts and eye discipline aren’t quite as strong as Jones’ but with his size, he’s got a little more versatility with how he can be used. You’ll see him line up off the edge as a pass rusher at times, and at other times you’ll see him lined up against the tight end. He’s an impressive physical specimen and plays a big role in that scheme, almost acting as Quinn’s version of K.J. Wright, who he coached in Seattle (with Jones playing the Bobby Wagner role).

When the Falcons are in their base defense with three linebackers on the field, the third backer is second-year man Duke Riley, a former teammate of Jones’ at LSU. Riley was a quality special teams player throughout his college career. He only started for one season in college, but he displayed great range, competitive toughness, and (surprise) a high motor. Getting off blocks at the point of attack was a point of emphasis for his improvement in making the transition to the NFL.

It should be noted that the Falcons selected Foyesade Oluokun in this April’s draft. If you’ve never heard of him, that’s OK. I studied him for you! Oluokun was a four-year starter for Yale in the Ivy League, racking up over 270 tackles as a freak show athlete at that level of competition. The rookie saw extensive snaps with the Falcons in the preseason and earned his way onto the team. The way he was used makes me believe he could be in line to compete with Riley for reps in their base defense down the road. Remember his name.

Transitioning to the Atlanta secondary, it's another group with legitimate talent. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are tough, instinctive corners with great ball skills. They provide Quinn with one of the best young cornerback tandems in the NFL. I said before the playoff game last year that they were the best duo the Eagles had faced all of last season, and I meant it.

Trufant missed time this summer but it doesn’t sound like the injury was anything drastic. Alford, who has played a bit inside throughout his career as well, is capable of being a shutdown guy in his own right despite his size. Those two will be a test for the knicked-up Eagles receiving corps.

In the slot, cornerback Brian Poole was undrafted out of the University of Florida because he checked in at under 5-10 and ran 4.55 in the 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. On film, however, I saw an instinctive player with great versatility (he played inside, outside, and at safety with the Gators), route awareness, and a bit of a competitive streak that showed up as a tackler (he forced two fumbles on big hits as a junior in 2014). I figured Poole would go undrafted but thought he’d stick in the league. He’s turned into a much better player than that and is one of the better nickel guys in the NFL.

The Falcons added to that depth by selecting Colorado cornerback Isaiah Oliver in the second round of April’s draft. I liked Oliver, not necessarily as a first-round pick like others did, but there were intriguing traits. He’s showed both the good and the bad this summer in the preseason.

Oliver checked in at the Combine at over 6-feet tall with 33.5-inch long arms (for context, I’ve got exactly seven corners with longer arms drafted in the last decade based off of numbers available to me in the media). He’s got solid speed for his size and that allows him to stay in-phase with receivers down the field. I really liked his ball skills and ability to finish at the catch point. I thought he was a little bit stiff, which is expected for a bigger corner, and I thought he was a bit undisciplined in press coverage. That last point he can certainly fix, and I’m sure it’s something Atlanta coaches are working on with him. He’s a name to watch for the future.

The cornerback depth chart in Atlanta is littered with other notable names. Blidi Wreh-Wilson is a former third-round pick out of UConn a few years back, and he’s built just like these long corners they developed out in Seattle. Justin Bethel is a veteran and three-time Pro Bowl selection for his special teams prowess with the Arizona Cardinals. Veteran Leon McFadden has been on seven teams in eight seasons but has seen plenty of playing time as a former third-round pick.

Staying with the theme of young defensive backs, second-year man Damontae Kazee has really flashed this summer. He was extremely small at 5-10, 184 pounds, but he racked up an astounding 240 tackles as a three-year starter at San Diego State and hauled in 15 interceptions in his final two seasons as a starter with 29 career pass breakups. That is silly production. Kazee went to the combine and only ran 4.54 which, at that size, wouldn’t get it done on the outside. I shoehorned him as a nickel corner when he was coming out, but the Falcons thought otherwise and moved him farther off the ball as a safety. So far, the results have looked good.

Kazee’s competitive toughness flashes in every game he played this summer when he got reps with the first-team unit thanks to a Ricardo Allen injury. Kazee looks instinctive in the post, feisty in the alley, and he’s got the ball skills to finish for big plays on the back end. It should be noted that the Falcons finished 27th in takeaways a year ago and 29th in interceptions during the regular season. I wonder if Kazee could get moved into the starting lineup soon enough with his propensity for the big play, and I do wonder if the selection of Oliver (who netted three picks in one year as a starter last fall) had something to do with that stat as well.

I want to wrap things up with Keanu Neal, one of my favorite safeties in the entire NFL. He’s extremely physical and instinctive in the run game, acting as an extra linebacker in their nickel package. He fits right in there next to Jones and Campbell in the box. He is the tight end matchup guy, meaning he will go man-to-man with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert on Thursday night. Eagles fans may remember Neal as the guy who dropped a key interception just before halftime in January’s playoff game, but let me assure you that he is one of the best at what he does in the league.

All in all, this is an aggressive Falcons defense with talent at all three levels of the field. The Eagles have to be ready for a fist fight on Thursday night. I expect Doug Pederson and his coaching staff to put together an excellent game plan that utilizes the Eagles' speed on offense with some misdirection and backfield-action to mess with defender’s keys to open up running lanes for ball carriers. In the passing game, attacking Cover 3 zone will be big for quarterback Nick Foles, but receivers have to find ways to win one-on-one against man coverage because Atlanta plays a bit more man than you’d think. This is going to be a great game at Lincoln Financial Field to open the NFL season.

Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated “Eagles Game Plan” show which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on Apple Podcasts.

Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.

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