Michael Cunningham: This wasn't 'new team, new story' for Falcons defense

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The theory of the 2019 Falcons accepted by team owner Arthur Blank was that Dan Quinn fixed them at midseason. Quinn ceded the defensive play-calling and had his running backs coach switch sides. The Falcons won six of their last eight games, including four in a row to close, and they would carry that improved play over to 2020.

I was always skeptical of that story. I looked for evidence that I was wrong on Sunday. Instead, Seattle sliced through the Falcons’ defense for a 38-25 victory. It may be tempting to chalk that up to Russell Wilson’s brilliance. But the problems looked so familiar that they run deeper than a bad day against a great quarterback.

The Falcons lost their third straight season opener. They gave up 18 points to Philadelphia in 2018, 28 to the Vikings last season and now 38 to Seattle. The Falcons started 1-4 in 2018, 1-6 last season and now … well, we’ll see, but the first act flopped.

“It’s a new year, new team and a new story,” Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “So we are excited to get back to work.”

The Seahawks totaled 27 points in a victory here last October while scoring on five of nine drives (kneel downs excluded). Seattle put up 38 points on Sunday, scoring on six of 10 drives, before gathering for another victory formation. That’s the most points allowed by the Falcons since the Rams scored 37 two weeks before Quinn’s big staff shakeup of 2019.

In some ways, this game wasn’t like some of the worst Falcons defensive performances in 2019. I didn’t see confused defensive backs letting receivers run free. Raheem Morris, now the defensive coordinator, helped with that problem when he took over as secondary coach during the 2019 bye week.

Against Seattle, the issue for the Falcons was a lack of plays made, not poor organization. They didn’t have enough guys who could cover (Wilson was 31-for-25 with four touchdowns), get the quarterback down (three Falcons sacks) or take the ball away (zero forced fumbles and zero interceptions).

Those are much bigger issues to fix than communication. They were problems last season, too.

The Falcons added some player personnel to address them. It didn’t show against Seattle. The coverage didn’t look good with rookie A.J. Terrell, a first-round pick, and veteran Darquez Dennard in the secondary. New pass rusher Dante Fowler recorded one-half sack.

Seattle had a clear plan to take advantage of the Falcons’ weaknesses. Wilson put pressure on the coverage with short passes to multiple receivers. He made the Falcons hesitate with play-fakes and by passing on the move. Wilson sprinkled in the occasional deep pass and hand off to running backs.

To counter, the Falcons needed to keep Wilson in the pocket, limit space for his receivers and close fast when they caught the ball. Save for three stops in the second quarter, the Falcons couldn’t do it when it mattered. The Seahawks scored on their first two drives for a 14-3 lead and on three straight possessions after halftime to put the Falcons away.

Seattle’s first score was aided by Falcons safety Ricardo Allen’s egregious pass interference penalty. That let the Seahawks off the hook. They were in a hole because of a penalty and sacks by Jarrett and Takk McKinley. Seattle needed just three plays to score on its second possession.

Wilson worked the Falcons over on both drives.

Allen’s penalty set Seattle up with a first-and-goal. Two plays later, Wilson faked a hand off inside and sprinted outside to fling an easy TD pass to Chris Carson. Seattle had good field position Falcons failed to gain a fourth down on their next possession. Wilson then hit D.K. Metcalf for a 13-yard completion, ran for 28 yards after faking a handoff and then feathered a perfectly-timed screen passs to Carson for a 19-yard touchdown.

Seattle’s offense was crisp. The Falcons were off balance. They recovered and forced thee straight punts. The Falcons made some good plays during that stretch.

Jarrett and Fowler sacked Wilson to complete a three-and-out stand. Falcons cornerback Tobias Oliver knocked down a quick third-down pass intended for Metcalf. Linebacker Deion Jones chased down running back Travis Homer to prevent him from turning a short pass into a third down. The Falcons clawed to within 14-12 at halftime.

But it turned out Wilson was setting up Oliver. When Seattle faced a fourth-and-five on its first possession after halftime, it looked like Wilson was going to try another quick pass inside to Metcalf. Instead, Metcalf shed Oliver challenge and took off for the empty field behind him. Wilson delivered a pretty, 38-yard touchdown pass.

The next Falcons possession ended with a turnover. Sharrod Neasman gained the necessary yardage on a fake punt run but lost the ball. Seattle had another short field. Three short passes and two runs later, the Seahawks had a touchdown and 28-12 lead.

That’s when the recognizable Falcons feeling returned. They weren’t going to stop the Seahawks often enough to come back. Seattle committed three penalties on its next drive but still ended it with a field goal. Wilson completed passes of 10 and 17 yards to receivers who weren’t closely covered.

Seattle added one more touchdown just to be sure. Wilson hit Metcalf for 37 yards to get into scoring position and then continued his methodical march down field with short passes.

“Just being himself,” Jarrett said. “Mobile guy, but also super accurate. He’s got great command of the offense and his team. He’s a premier player for a reason.”

That’s true. The Falcons won’t see quarterbacks of that caliber every week. But they’ll see good quarterbacks often enough that the losses can pile up with a weak pass rush and soft coverage.

Aaron Rodgers awaits the Falcons in Week 4. The final seven weeks of the schedule features Drew Brees and Tom Brady twice each, and Patrick Mahomes once.

The Falcons are set to face Dak Prescott in Dallas next week. He’s not a top-tier quarterback. He’s pretty good, though, and he can hand off to bruising Pro Bowl back Ezekiel Elliott. That can be good enough to score plenty against the Falcons if their defense doesn’t improve.

We were told it would be better this year after the strong close to last season. There was little evidence of that in the opener.

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©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)