FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — At this time last year, Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn was just over a month into taking over the defensive playcalling from then-defensive coordinator Richard Smith.
There won’t be a similar change this season.
Quinn said defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel is “100 percent” in charge of the defensive playcalling and he has “total trust” in Manuel as the sixth-seeded Falcons head into Saturday’s divisional matchup with the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles. The Falcons made a dramatic defensive improvement this season, finishing in the top 10 in both scoring defense and total defense for the first time since 1998. The Falcons are fresh off holding the league’s top-scoring team, the Los Angeles Rams, to 13 points in last week’s wild-card win. The Rams averaged almost 30 points per game during the regular season.
Quinn said he and Manuel share a similar mindset when it comes to calling the defense, considering they’ve worked together for the Seattle Seahawks.
“Yes,” Quinn said. “I would say very much [so], and I mean the fact that we’ve sat next to each other for a number of years now. I guess at least five or six, so we’re able to communicate quickly about our scheme, our style, the attitude of how we play. That doesn’t happen in a month’s time. Those are things that are built through time, and I’ve got great trust in him.
“He’s got a really quick mind. He, on game day, is really quick to adapt and adjust, which is not an easy thing to do. You have to go through those to have that experience, and he’s very well-equipped for that. That was evident all the way back from the preseason.”
Manuel, 38, was the defensive backs coach/senior defensive assistant for the Falcons the previous two seasons. The former NFL safety was a defensive assistant under Quinn with the Seahawks for two seasons as well as a coaching intern for Quinn at the University of Florida, where Manuel played his college ball. Manuel also learned from Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and good friend and former teammate Kris Richard, currently the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator.
So when was the moment Manuel decided he was ready to call plays?
“Probably had to be my first year here ,” Manuel said. “When I say that, and no knock against those who were in charge prior, but just understanding that I had been trained for four years in Seattle. I had been trained under Dan. Just [learning] the defense itself and understanding what plays to help us win.
“Everybody, sometimes when you’re calling a game, is like, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ve got these calls on the call sheet.’ It’s what’s for that down in that situation. That experience, listening to Kris, hearing Pete, sitting at meetings when people weren’t talking to you at times and you were the focal point. You just sat back, took notes and remembered those things. Now you apply them. That’s what I call grace, man.”
Quinn praised Manuel earlier in the season for installing more defensive calls in the red zone. It obviously worked as the Falcons improved from dead last in red zone defense a season ago to fifth this season. Despite the success, Manuel is never satisfied. He discussed the most difficult aspects of being a playcaller.
“Remaining poised and moving on to the next call,” Manuel said. “Things that happen in a game, everybody else might celebrate. I might shake hands. But I’m always 10 steps and two quarters ahead because you always have to be ready to adjust and adapt to the situation that’s happening.”
The maturation of his players, particularly second-year defenders Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell and Keanu Neal, has made the transition easier for Manuel. Manuel underwent a growth spurt himself, way back in September.
“The first game that I called [at Chicago] came down to the last four calls that I made,” Manuel recalled. “If they score a touchdown, game over and we lose. … The growth process, it was rapid. Every game, I take notes on everything. I do it all the time. To be the best adjusting team on Sunday, you can’t fix it on Monday. So how would you remember it? When you write something, you remember it. I leave a block on my call sheet for notes.”
This week, there’s no secret to the defensive game plan, as with every week. The Falcons have to stop the run first, with the Eagles having two solid running backs in Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount. Ajayi rushed for 130 yards on 26 carries against the Falcons on Oct. 15 while he was a member of the Miami Dolphins.
Manuel should have his defense prepared for the run and Nick Foles and the Eagles’ passing game. Remember, Manuel stays 10 steps and two quarters ahead.