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What the Cowboys offense should expect from the Falcons defense

The Falcons defense will look very familiar.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Usually when a team hires a defensive-minded head coach, the expectation is that they’ll feature high-quality defenses and middle-of-the-road offenses that focus on running the ball early and often. Coaches like Mike Zimmer and Pete Carroll have definitely fit that mold for a while.

But it’s been quite the opposite for Dan Quinn in Atlanta. Hired in 2015, Quinn made the slam-dunk move of bringing in Kyle Shanahan as his offensive coordinator. After going 8-8 that year, Shanahan’s offense went supernova in 2016 and carried a very poor defense to the Super Bowl, ultimately losing to the Patriots.

Then Shanahan left to become the 49ers head coach. Quinn also fired his defensive coordinator at the time to improve their defense, especially with an expected regression on offense. The result for the 2017 season was actually promising, as Atlanta finished eighth in both yards allowed and scoring defense. However, the Falcons’ inconsistent offense led to a playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl winners, the Eagles.

Since then, Quinn has cycled through three different defensive coordinators, with former Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris currently the coordinator. Both the 2018 and 2019 seasons saw the Falcons defense among the very worst in the league, with injuries derailing things all too often.

Morris, who’s been with the team as long as Quinn but just took over the defense in full this season, was supposed to bring about a massive course correction in what’s considered to be a make-or-break year for Quinn. After all, Morris was around in Tampa when Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli built their legendary Super Bowl-winning Tampa 2 defense.

And that schematic commonality is why Morris has been a close confidant for Quinn in his head coaching tenure. Quinn ran the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defense from 2013-2014, winning a Super Bowl in the process. That defense - which puts a premium on tall and long cornerbacks while using a ton of Cover 3 sets - was devised by Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll as a way to modernize the Tampa 2 defense.

Kiffin and Marinelli’s Tampa 2 defense was invincible in the early 2000’s, when running the ball was a must for every team and passing concepts weren’t so complex. But as teams started airing it out more and using three and four receiver sets with regularity, the Tampa 2 simply couldn’t keep up. So Carroll adapted it to feature more Cover 3, which helped cut down on the amount of big plays being given up over the top. But the philosophies - attack the quarterback, limit the big play, and rarely blitz - remained the same.

Quinn brought that same type of defensive blueprint to Atlanta, although he wasn’t as much of a stickler for tall corners as Kris Richard was. Yet like Richard in Dallas, Quinn has struggled to find consistent success, highlighting how much of Seattle’s defensive success was due to the presence of elite players like Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor.

But by getting Morris more directly involved with the defense this offseason, Quinn likely hoped to get back to the roots of their shared defensive philosophies. Perhaps together they could fashion some new defense that would launch the Falcons back into contender status. They also brought in a lot of new talent on that side of the ball; defensive end Dante Fowler and cornerback Darqueze Dennard joined rookies such as defensive tackle Marlon Davidson, cornerback AJ Terrell, and linebacker Mykal Walker.

So far, through one game, not much has changed. They got torched by Russell Wilson’s Seahawks, giving up 38 points while only forcing four incompletions by Wilson, who had a banner day. Atlanta’s offense outgained Seattle’s and even performed better on third downs, but still fell short because of how poorly the defense played.

It’s possible that this could just be chalked up to playing the first game of the season without any real offseason to speak of, and the tackling was especially bad. But the Atlanta defenders got exposed in a similar way to the Cowboys’ defense last year when running a similar scheme.

Seahawks running back Chris Carson had two touchdown receptions because of how soft the underneath coverages are for this scheme. And tight end Greg Olsen was able to easily find the openings in the second level for another touchdown.

This was a recurring theme all game long, and it’s why Wilson had the sixth least intended air yards from last week despite throwing the ball 35 times and accruing 322 passing yards. The best way to expose this defense is by attacking the underneath and relying on yards after catch.

For the Cowboys, this bodes very well for them. CeeDee Lamb should see a ton of targets out of the slot, while Ezekiel Elliott - who was very productive out of the backfield last week - and Tony Pollard should get a lot of opportunities as well.

More than anything, though, is that a gameplan focusing on attacking these areas would translate to quicker throws. And since Dallas is already missing La’el Collins and now potentially Tyron Smith as well, getting the ball out of Dak Prescott’s hands as quickly as possible is an absolute must. It’s a blessing in disguise that the best way for the Cowboys to adapt to their injuries this week also happens to be the best way to attack this Falcons defense.