The speed and precision with which Atlanta’s wide receivers and running backs play have earned the Falcons’ offense a nickname, albeit not a terribly original one.
You’ll hear a lot this week about the Greatest Show on Turf, a for-millennials nod to the St. Louis Rams’ go-go offenses from the early 2000s, back when St. Louis still had an NFL franchise.
What you won’t hear as much about is the Falcons’ defense, which finished near the bottom of the league during the regular season in yards (25th) and points (27th) allowed.
No less of an authority than New England coach Bill Belichick – after figuring out who the Patriots were facing in Super Bowl LI – watched a few video clips of the Falcons’ defense and pronounced: “They look like they’re faster than almost every team they play.”
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That includes the Carolina Panthers, whose three-year run atop the NFC South standings came to a jarring end in 2016 as the Falcons swept the season series from their I-85 rivals.
While former Falcons coach Dan Quinn didn’t build his defenses for the sole purpose of containing Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, the speed and playmakers Atlanta added on defense the past two seasons certainly didn’t hurt in dealing with Carolina’s zone-read wrinkle and Newton’s scrambles.
Since Quinn arrived in 2015 from Seattle (which went 3-0 against Carolina during his two-year tenure as defensive coordinator), the Falcons used their first- and second-round picks the past two years to draft defensive players.
All are starters and several look like emerging stars.
Former Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley (first round, No. 8 overall) and cornerback Jalen Collins (second, No. 42) came on board in 2015, followed by safety Keanu Neal (first, No. 17) and linebacker Deion Jones (second, No. 52) last year.
In his second season, Beasley led the league with 15.5 sacks and tied for the lead in forced fumbles with six. Carolina fans will remember him for ending the Panthers’ perfect 2015 season with strip-sack against Newton during the final minutes at the Georgia Dome.
Jones, a former Louisiana State standout, ended Newton’s day during the Panthers’ most recent – and final – visit to the soon-to-be-imploded Dome. When Newton slowed near the goal line to do a little showboating in the House that Deion Built, Jones blasted him into the league’s concussion protocol for the first time in the quarterback’s six-year career.
Quinn modeled this Falcons’ D after those he oversaw in Seattle, with foot speed trumping girth.
“We knew the talent in our division, for sure. And we knew the talent around the league. If you can’t run, you have no chance,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said Monday night.
“”It was calculated and we believe that just because you may be 10 pounds smaller or less in weight, it doesn’t mean you can’t be tough and gritty football players.”
With Quinn moving to a 4-3 scheme from the 3-man front employed by former coach Mike Smith, Dimitroff realized the personnel would have to change, too. It did – and fast.
“We knew we had a whole bunch of big, stout guys and we weren’t going to be doing that with Dan. So I knew that we were going to be shifting the defense to fast, athletic, explosive players that can run with people,” Dimitroff said.
“We’re playing in a league right now where there’s some damn good tight ends. And if you can’t run with them and you can’t run with running backs, you have no chance to match.”
Just as Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan needed some time to get things clicking, so too did Quinn and defensive chief Richard Smith, a former Panthers assistant under John Fox.
When the Panthers hosted Atlanta during Week 14 in 2015, Carolina blasted the Falcons 38-0 behind 265 passing yards and three touchdowns from Newton, who did not throw an interception.
Newton completed 71 percent of his passes that day and finished with a career-high 153.3 passer rating.
He has struggled against his hometown team in the three games since, falling short of 200 yards passing in each game. The low point was the Christmas Eve loss to the Falcons this season when Newton had a 41.9 completion percentage and 44.5 passer rating, both of which ranked among the worst in his career.
However, Smith wasn’t ready to dismiss the Panthers’ offense, which is expected to undergo a transition this offseason to a scheme featuring more play-action passes and rollouts to protect Newton.
“They have a really good offense. Cam’s a great competitor. Not only can he beat you with his arm, he can beat you with his feet,” Smith said. “Plus with (Jonathan) Stewart, they’re strong running the ball. They’re good throwing the ball.
“That was the team we had to find a way how to defeat. We were fortunate this year. We did a good job against them and I’m sure they’ll be back next year.”
Atlanta defenders won’t have to worry about Newton until next season – perhaps during Week 1 when the Falcons open the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium?
Their only task this week is preparing for arguably the greatest quarterback of all time.
Still, Beasley said facing Newton twice a year has made the Falcons a better defense.
“Playing against quarterbacks like Drew Brees and obviously Tom (Brady), you don’t have to necessarily worry about them getting out of the pocket as much as you do a Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson or an Aaron Rodgers,” Beasley said. “Playing that zone read against Cam definitely helped our speed as a defense.”