In the age of the custom hybrid defense, one of the more overlooked components of a coach's scheme is understandability and functionality. Despite the increasing advantage offenses have, there are still ways to combat a lack of practice time and build a dominant defense that is flexible enough to handle a spread, Power-I or zone-read attack.
This is why a big deal is made when coaches like Rex Ryan and former Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell struggle and talk about getting back to basics. Sometimes a brilliant scheme can grow so complicated that even position coaches are struggling to keep up with the checks and subs which appear simple to the creator, but to its students it represents an equation where all the numbers have changed.
Though we have only suspicions, it could serve as an explanation for why a once-great defense like Lovie Smith's Tampa 2 -- a broad generalization for a system that also incorporates plenty of Cover 1 and Cover 3 -- struggles without the cerebral and versatile Brian Urlacher.
This is why simple defenses seem to stand the test of time. The Seattle Seahawks, for example, are still third in the NFL in yards per game surrendered (286.3 yards/game).
In that spirit, Dan Quinn's Atlanta Falcons defense is starting to make a name for itself. Though they are 23rd in yards per game at the moment (378), it is the way Quinn's unit is winning games that is drawing attention. With essentially the same scheme, he has, in consecutive weeks, played well enough against a light speed Chip Kelly attack; a West Coast, Mike McCarthy-inspired air attack; and one of the league's best power running games all while using essentially the same philosophy and scheme.
Adapting the offense's tendencies to your scheme is not new, but it is the theory that led Seattle -- and Quinn -- to two straight Super Bowl appearances. Members of the Seahawks would often speak openly about how simplistic their scheme was, which allowed them to play faster and more instinctively.
"If you have a million reads for your secondary, you are crazy," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll told a coaching clinic in a lecture that was later cited by Chris Brown's book, The Art of Smart Football. "At the highest level in the NFL, the pass game is as complex as you can imagine. However, if the free safety can play the post and the seam routes, then they can learn to play at that level."
In looking at playtime percentages across the first three games, the Falcons have been remarkably consistent. Players know their roles and are conditioned to play them. Consider the following snap numbers from Week 1 to Week 2 to Week 3 (the Falcons played significantly fewer defensive snaps in their third game):
Some of these players could be looked at as gimmick type or situation-specific athletes on other teams, but in Quinn's scheme, just like Carroll's, everything fits into its proper place.
Looking at one particular situation -- third-and-long -- across the board in each of Atlanta's first three games, the only real change between looks defensively is an occasional alteration in defensive tackles. Sometimes they will play two gaps on one side. For the most part, he has stout but speedy tackles attacking the B and C gaps, a deep safety playing center field and another safety helping out with underneath routes.
Like Seattle, Atlanta is laying the groundwork for a reverse chess match where the offense has to adjust first and beat a scheme with a very solid foundation. Players don't have many calls or checks to miss and so there aren't as many busted coverages based on miscommunication.
For now, we're stressing the success in terms of versatility -- there was not much of a common thread between Atlanta's first three opponents.
And Quinn is already apologizing for the 295 total yards he gave up against Dallas. He said it's not the scheme's fault, it's attitude. Though that can sometimes be labeled as coach speak, we're inclined to believe him here.
"It hurt," Quinn said Monday, via ESPN.com. "I think the thing we wanted to make sure is really get right back to the details. It wasn't necessarily a scheme error or a player error that (needed to be) corrected. Like, 'We can do this ourselves. And let's make sure we come right back to how we want to get it fixed.' And there were some minor things to go with it. But it was really our mindset and our attitude that took over for us."