Dan Quinn’s Defense w/ Atlanta Falcons Personnel
With a lot of reading I have noticed a lot of people are unsure of exactly how Dan Quinn’s defense operates. What personnel is needed? Where is the personnel needed? What responsibilities does each position have? What attributes are needed for each position?
In an effort to help answer some of these questions I will start by breaking down Dan Quinn’s 4-3 Under defense and how it lines up. I will then break down positions individually and give an idea of who I see fitting where. (This is my opinion not facts. We will know more about who fits best once they step on the field)
First things first. What is the 4-3 defense? “4” represents how many lineman (Defensive Tackle, DT, & Defensive Ends, DE) and “3” represents the linebackers (LB). You will also have 4 DBs (2 Corner Backs (CB) and 2 Safeties (Free Safety, FS, and Strong Safety, SS). (Standard look pictured Bottom Right)
Where each player lines up is called “# Technique” “DE or DT”. So when referring to a “3 Technique” lineman, he lines up in the number 3 spot. Which side of the line will vary depending on where the TE lines up. The side with the most lineman/Tight end is referred to as the “Strong” side of the field. The opposite the Weak side of the field. This is dictated by the offensive play call. (Pictured Above)
In a typical 4-3 defense the DT’s are 1 Technique on the weak side and 3 technique on the strong side. DE’s are 5 technique on the weak side and 6 technique on the Strong side. Each is responsible for a single gap (DT the A gap for 1 technique and B gap for 3 Technique) and DE’s (the C gap for the Weakside and D gap for the Strong Side). In what is referred to as a “Hybrid” defense, DT’s may have two gap assignments in the run game which is something commonly found in a 3-4 defense hence the term “Hybrid”. We will touch on this more later. Also in a typical 4-3 defense the LB’s are responsible for certain gaps depending on where they line-up. In the illustration above you can see how the DL are responsible for the gaps mentions above and the LBs are responsible for the “open” gaps left by defensive lineman. This is an illustration of one common variation of this.
Quinn’s 4-3 Under Defense
So now you’re wondering what does all this have to do with Dan Quinn’s scheme? This is the base for what the defense was formed off of. All variations start here. Now you’re probably wondering, how does Dan Quinn’s work then? Well his will vary as well depending on situation, injuries, offensive personnel, etc. For easier understanding we will only look at the most common offensive formation “21” (2 Wide Receivers, 1 Tight End, and 2 Running Backs). I’d also like to note one big change Falcons fans should notice: Speed. Quinn emphasis playing off the snap (typical 4-3), Nolan plays off the OL (typical 3-4). Playing off the snap will speed up the DL to create more disruption opportunities.
So first what’s the difference between the 4-3 listed above and the 4-3 Under Quinn uses? Well first in the 4-3 Under base defense the team will need a different set of personnel. This defense was initially created by Monte Kiffin in Tampa (when you hear someone say “Tampa 2 defense” it’s his scheme they are referring to). Reason being, in Quinn’s base, the DT’s are responsible for 2 gaps instead of 1. This is the “Hybrid” mentioned above. Typically 2 gap responsibilities are common in the 3-4 as they use much bigger lineman and rely heavily on LBs making stops at or behind the line instead of DL. So let’s take a look at the base defensive formation for Seattle:
As you can see above, the DL are basically in the same spot with exception to the Strong side DE moving into the 5 technique (can also lineup in the 4 technique) like the weakside DE or “LEO” (It’s also commonly refferred to as the “Elephant”). You also will notice the LBs are shifted to the strong side of the field with the SAM at the line of scrimmage. (Will is weakside LB, Mike is Middle LB, and Sam is Strong Side LB).
Defensive Line in 4-3 Over
First big difference is gap responsibility. The 4 tech DE is now responsible for the B & C gaps and the 3 Tech is responsible for the two A gaps. The defensive line here is not based off getting penetration but instead forming a wall. The reason being if you create a wall the RB has no gaps to run through. This forces him sideline to sideline and allows the LB’s and S’s to come up and make a play before the RB gets passed the line.
There is one other main variation you will see which is one gap coverage (typically on first down). This is based off the same personnel and technique but instead of making defensive lineman cover two gaps they only have responsibility of one gap and the LB will have responsibility of the other gap. Below is an illustration of the difference. (Photo credit to Neftani Santiago)
Now that we have reviewed the basics of the defensive scheme, lets look at each position individually and what responsibilities each has and how Falcon personnel fits into the scheme.
The 1 Tech DT
· Responsibilities: A stone wall. Penetration is not the most important part for this role but instead to hold the point of attack and make a wall to cut off running lanes and open up seams for the LBs. Must be able to maintain double teams without being moved.
· Personnel Type: This needs to be a bigger, quick first step, lineman. He needs the strength to take on double teams constantly while maintaining gap integrity. It’s also crucial to win at the point of attack to not allow the Center/Guard to slide him over and open the A gap in the middle of the field.
· Falcons Best Fit: Paul Soliai – At 6’4 and over 340lbs Soliai has a lot of experience eating double teams without being moved. He also has a good first step which should help him succeed in the system. He is a stone wall and has been in the league for years. He should have this position locked down and I don’t see anyone on the roster beating him out if he continues to work.
3 Tech DT
· Responsibilities: To maintain the B gap during running plays, and be an interior pass rusher on passing plays. This DT will need to be able to penetrate on passing downs. It is crucial he knocks the guard back into the middle of the pocket to not allow the QB to step into throws. It also forces the QB outside the pocket into the defenses DE’s
· Personnel Type: Needs to have adequate size but first step quickness is crucial. He needs to be able to drive the Guard back and collapse the pocket. He also needs to be able to cover his gap and cut off cut back lanes for RB’s.
· · Best Fit: Grady Jarrett – Jarret is a natural fit here. Quick off the line to win at the point of attack. He can easily win at the point of attack when he fires out his stance. Concerns about size come up but he plays with passion and has a knack for disrupting backfields. Being on the weakside should give him more flexibility to shoot gaps without hurting the integrity of the defense with only being responsible for one gap.
4 Tech DE
· Responsibilities: Main responsibility is to hold up against the run. It is very important for this position to hold up at the point of attack and again create a wall with the 1 Tech to force running backs to run laterally allowing LB’s and DB’s to meet the RB at the line.
· Personnel Type: Needs to be a bigger DE. Will be responsible for double teams and two gaps (most the time). The run defense starts with this position holding up at the line of scrimmage.
· · Best Fit: Ra’Shede Hageman – Hageman may benefit the most from a scheme change. Traditionally a 4-3 DT he has the size (300lbs) to play the strong side end and anchor the run defense in Quinn’s style of DL. In Quinn’s 4-3 Under he will not be asked to have as much pass rushing responsibility and can focus on filling gaps and taking double teams. Cox seems to have him on the right track as all the comments this offseason about him say he came in in the best shape anyone has ever seen. That’s great news for Falcons fans.
· Responsibilities: Mainly a pass rusher. Designed to get up field quickly and disrupt the backfield. Still needs to show gap discipline and cut off cut back lanes in the run game.
· Personnel Type: A quick DE who can win one on one battles with OT. Needs to have enough strength to hold up at the point of attack to avoid being exposed by counter plays and also the quickness to get around opposing OTs to create havoc in the backfield.
· Best Fit: Adriane Clayborne – Clayborne has shown a lot of promise as a pass rusher early in his career. He’s had some questions in the run game, but moving him to the weakside of the field should help him maintain his health while also putting him in position to do what he does best, get after the QB.
Now that we know the responsibilities and personnel for the DL let’s review the LB core which has haunted Atlanta fans for a while. The LB core is made up of the SAM, MIKE, & WILL LBs. Each is responsible for different parts of the defense and differ on what you need depending on the position.
· Responsibilities: To help maintain the Weakside A gap as well as drop into zone coverage. This LB is asked to run more across the field and sometimes cover the flats. This position racks up tackles in Quinn’s scheme. When executed properly the wall created on the strong side forces running backs back to the weakside where the WILL LB should be waiting.
· Personnel type: Needs to be fast. As he is typically asked to cover flats and weakside of the field. He needs to be able to move sideline to sideline. He also needs to show the strength to take on Centers and Full Backs when plugging the A gap.
· Best Fit: Justin Durant – Durant is a quick LB with a nose for the football. He has been very effective at the position when healthy. His major concern will be health.
· Responsibilities: D Gap outside the TE in the running game. Pass coverage of RB’s and TE’s.
· Personnel Type: He needs to be an athletic Rangy LB who is great against the run. He has a lot of responsibility in edge setting in the run game. He also needs the instincts to diagnose the play and not get caught making the wrong first step.
· Best Fit: Vic Beasley – This is Bruce Irvin’s position for Seattle. I initially viewed Beasley in the Leo position. After listening to his initial press conference where he said Quinn wanted to use him like Bruce Irvin, and the fact they’ve listed him as an OLB, I’m convinced this will be his position. You will see him line up on the weakside in a LEO type role in passing situations like Irvin was (see illustration below) This makes sense. He has the speed to get around the edge and we will see a lot more 8 man boxes. They will use his speed off the edge to chase plays in the run game while also creating havoc on pass downs. Teams will have to scheme for his rush off the edge. Also having him stand in a more wide 9 technique gives him the ability to build speed prior to meeting tackles. He showed a lot on tape the ability to turn speed to power. Quinn is hoping his great first step quickness will allow him to get on tackles quick giving him the edge. Honestly that’s a great use of his talent, if this is the plan. *Side Note: He will also be asked to occasionally drop in coverage to keep teams guessing. At his size he showed good fluidity dropping in coverage while at Clemson. His development this off season will be good to watch. Also Quinn would use Irvin un traditional at times. Look at the picture below:
You notice Irvin is lined up on the weakside of the field. This uses his speed in the run game as well as RBs don’t have the luxury of waiting for the hole to open. You also see Kam Chancellor playing at the line to keep numbers. This is a 4-4 look. This should be fun to watch.
· Responsibilities: Field General. Responsible for making adjustments at the line and audible play calls. Also responsible for covering middle 3rd of field against Tight Ends and Slot Receivers
· Personnel Type: Needs to be a very instinctual player and savvy. Able to work through the garbage and clean up gaps in the run game, but also able to instinctively diagnose plays to drop in coverage when the offensive play call calls for it
· Best Fit: Paul Worrilow (Underrated Challenger Allen Bradford). He seems to be the most divided opinionated player amongst fans (besides maybe Biermann). There is no doubting his instincts as a player. He has been weak at the point of attack and slower than preferred for the position. With that said, there are a lot of things to like about Worrilow. He’s a smart player whose instincts have allowed him to go from being undrafted to starting MLB on an NFL team. He is a hard worker who never takes plays off. If Quinn can get the DL to disrupt and command the attention of the OL this may play into Worrilow’s hands and allow him to be more effective at the point of attack. Quinn has his work cut out teaching him how to better shed blockers. This position will be interesting to watch as Worrilow by no means has it locked up. I also really like Allen Bradford. He has good size for the position and he has the speed to cover TE’s and RB’s. He is going to be really interesting to watch this offseason and I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t start taking playing time from Worrilow this year.
Now we’ve gone through the front seven in Dan Quinn’s base scheme let’s take a look at Defensive Backs and how they fit into Quinn’s scheme. First it’s no surprise with CB’s like Sherman (6’3 200lbs), Byron Maxwell (), and Walter Thurmond () that Dan Quinn prefers bigger CB’s. Too many people’s surprise though, this is not because he prefers man coverage. Mostly CB’s will be playing a deep zone in this scheme. The reason he prefers bigger CB’s is he wants to jam at the line and force receivers off their routes and disrupt timing early in plays. There is an inherent risk with this. You leave yourself vulnerable against faster receivers and their ability to get behind the CB. This is countered in the system by having a FS playing the middle deep part of the field as a support role for the CB and prevent open receivers down field. Let’s take a look at the standard zone Quinn used frequently in Seattle. *NOTE: This changes from play to play and coverage responsibilities change. This is a look at the most popular coverage called by Quinn during his time in Seattle.
So here you can see this is a standard cover 3 zone (cover 3 means you have 3 deep zones leaving no vulnerability deep down field). First thing to notice is Maxwell at the bottom of the screen. His responsibility is the deep zone on weakside of the field. He’s covering New Orleans receiver Marques Colston. Instead of just dropping into his zone he presses Colston at the line forcing him inside into the defensive zones. He doesn’t break off the receiver until he moves completely out of the zone and into another zone. You can also see Jimmy Graham running a seam route up the middle. First notice the MIKE LB (Bobby Wagner) is dropping to cover underneath Graham and FS Earl Thomas is playing about 15 yards behind the line. Thomas is responsible for making sure no one is open in the deep middle part of the field. But instead of instantly falling back in his zone, he remains patience and watches the play develop. In Quinn’s system he has the freedom to jump routes if he sees the QB trying to drop the ball in-between the two zones so it is crucial that the FS stays at home and doesn’t drop too quickly. He also has to have the speed to recover if the TE or WR is running a streak route down the middle to not let him get over the top. You also notice the WILL LB (Bruce Irvin) is responsible for covering the RB out of the flats. He doesn’t instantly drop to the flats but waits for the HB to come out. Reason being if he runs a small curl route the LB is to stay home and prevent an easy 5 yard completion. Also you he wants to ensure there is no delayed handoff to the RB as he is responsible for the D Gap. Each position has a zone responsibility but they also have a player responsibility. If the WR is going deep then it is on the LB to cover the RB if the WR stays home in the flats it’s on him to cover the flat. (This is typically a dual approach as the DB is jamming him to help slow down timing and give the LB time to get in position between WR and the QB) Dan Quinn doesn’t usually stick the #1 CB on the #1 WR but instead leaves them on one side of the field. Now let’s take a look at how the Falcons personnel fairs in this situation.
Left Side Corner Back
· Responsibilities: Needs to jam receivers at the line and be physical. Responsible for knocking WR off of routes and forcing them into the strength of the defense. He also is responsible for the 1/3 outside part of the field on his side.
· Personnel Type: Big physical corner. 6’ + is preferred to jam the bigger receivers in the league. He also needs to be quick at his size and able to keep up with the faster WR’s in the league.
· Best Fit: Desmond Trufant – At 6’ and 195lbs he fits the mold Quinn likes. He prefers a little bigger, but Trufant makes up for his height with speed and physicality. Trufant loves playing in man and zone coverages and takes a lot of pride in shutting down big time receivers. He should continue to progress in this system and very well could be listed as the best CB in the league if he continues to grow as he has the last two years. Not to be overlooked, the hiring of Raheem Morris who is known around the league as one of the better DB coaches. He should help to speed up the development of Trufant.
Right Side Corner Back
· Respnsibilities: Same as Left Side Cornerback
· Personnel Type: Same as Left Side Cornerback
· Best Fit: Jalen Collins. He’s a big physical corner who plays with speed (4.4 40 at pro day on a broken foot!) He shows some issues with footwork and technique and relied too much on athleticism in college. Everything you see on tape with him looks to be correctable with good coaching. He very well could become our next Sherman at his size and speed potentially giving the Falcons one of the most dangerous CB tandems in the league in a couple years.
· Responsibilities: Needs to be a run stopper. He will be asked to come up in run support on the strong side to give the defense numbers. He needs to have the ability to man his zone but also come up and play Tight Ends and slot receivers when the situation dictates man coverage.
· Personnel Type: Bigger physical safety. Needs to show the willingness to aggressively attack the line of scrimmage but the speed to maintain in single coverage when asked.
· Best Fit: William Moore – At 6’ and 220lbs yet runs a 4.5, Moore is a rare specimen. He has great size and athleticism while also showing the willingness to attack the line of scrimmage and meet running backs at the hole. His concern will be injuries which has derailed some of his seasons early in his career. This position has good depth though as Ishmael (in his rookie season) showed in Moore’s absence last year he is capable of being a physical safety as well.
· Responsibilities: Cover 1 type safety. Defending the deep ball and last line run support.
· Personnel Type: Again a bigger safety. Ultimately athleticism is the most important. He needs to show good ball skills to defend passes and meet receivers at the high point. Needs the speed to get sideline to sideline in a hurry to help defend over the top. Also will need great instincts to not be fooled by the eyes of the QB and stay disciplined.
· Best Fit: Akeem King – At 6’3 and 210lbs King still turned in a 4.3 40 at his pro day. He shows the size and speed to play the position well. Originally a WR for San Jose he is familiar with route trees. Also a 3 time scholar athlete and two time conference academic athlete he shows the intelligence and physical ability to play the spot. He will need a little work with his footwork and he will need to show some discipline in cover 1 but he has the tools to be a huge find for Quinn and Dimitroff in the 7th round.
Whether we line up in a one gap or two gap system personnel should not change. The difference will come when we know the run is coming and to try and give the defense numbers. Football is about numbers. The offense wants one more blocker than the defense has defenders and vice-versa.
This year should be a lot of fun for Falcons fans as the Falcons had a lot of personnel that fit into the scheme and with this much simpler defensive philosophy players should be able to play much faster and more decisive than we seen in the last couple years under Nolan and Smith who are known to try and mask blitzes and require their LB’s and DE’s to go through a couple checks before knowing their assignment. Also the development of guys like Worrilow, Trufant, and Hageman over the last year or two should pay dividends as they are more aware and prepared to play in the grueling NFL. Be excited fans at the philosophy and signings show this team means business and is focused on stopping the run. Once you can stop the run you can force offenses to be one-dimensional giving the defense free range to dictate the game to the offense. Combine this with what was already a top 10 offense in the league and you have the makings for a quick turnaround. Quinn will bring in confidence, leadership, competition and fire to a team that has been lacking this under the Mike Smith era.
In conclusion: Looking at the personnel usage in Seattle and how they are starting to line up now as the off season gets started. Here is my starting 2015 lineup:
RDE – Ra’Shede Hageman (1st/2nd Down), Adrian Clayborne (3rd)
RDT – Paul Soliai (1st/2nd), R. Hageman (3rd)
LDT – J. Babineaux (1st/2nd), Grady Jarrett (3rd)
LDE – Adriane Clayborne (1st/2nd), Kroy Biermann (3rd)
SLB – Brooks Reed (1st/2nd), Vic Beasley (2nd/3rd)
MLB – Paul Worrilow (1st-3rd)
WLB – Justin Durant (1st-3rd)
RCB – Jalen Collins (1st-3rd)
SS – William Moore (1st-3rd)
FS – Akeem King (1st-3rd)
LCB – Desmond Trufant (1st-3rd)
Guys to watch through the offseason: Allen Bradford (MLB), Derek Akkune (WILL and MIKE LB), Kevin White (Nickel CB), Kemal Ishmael (SS),Marquis Spruill (MIKE LB) and Justin Hardy (WR). All these guys will push for roster spots and may make a good competition for starting.
Prediction: Falcons will go 11-5 and take the NFC South. They will get out of the divisional round this year which should be a huge success over the past couple years. I’d be surprised if this team isn’t contending in the next 2 years if not next year. Rise Up!