Falcons' defense bends expectations with versatility

Lindsay H. Jones
USA TODAY Sports
Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Vic Beasley (44) is greeted by Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (97) after he scored on a 21-yard fumble recovery in the third quarter of the game against the Los Angeles Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

HOUSTON – When Dan Quinn was hired as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons two years ago, Ricardo Allen figured his tenure with the Falcons was going to end after just one season.

At 5-9 and 186 pounds, Allen didn’t look anything like the big, rangy cornerbacks Quinn coached as defensive coordinator in Seattle. Secondary coach Marquand Manuel confirmed as much directly to Allen in their first in-person conversation.

“He said, ‘I’m going to tell you the truth. You’re not a profile fit for us.’ I was like, ‘Oh man,’ ” Allen told USA TODAY Sports.

Allen went home that day and called his agent. Together, they came up with a plan that would not only save Allen’s job, but alter his career as well. The next time Allen returned to the Falcons’ training facility in Flowery Branch, he had a sales pitch ready for Manuel for why he should move to safety.

Manuel had the same idea. Two seasons later, Allen has started 30 games and two postseason contests at free safety, the position Quinn called “the eraser” in his defense.

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But Allen isn’t the only Falcon who has changed position since Quinn’s arrival. Vic Beasley, the Falcons’ first-round pick in 2015, transitioned this year from a hybrid linebacker-defensive end pass rusher role to strong side outside linebacker, where he could find more space for rushing, but also sometimes drop in pass coverage.

Courtney Upshaw, who won a Super Bowl ring as a rookie with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012, moved from linebacker to defensive end after signing with the Falcons as a free agent this year. Linebacker Brooks Reed has played an increasing number of snaps along the defensive line as well.

And then there is Ben Garland, who plays backup center, guard and defensive tackle.

The lesson? If you want to play for Quinn, you better be willing to be flexible.

“I think guys just want to play,” Upshaw, who started five games for the Falcons this year, said. “If you’re a competitor, at the end of the day, if you’re playing out of position, if you want to be on the field, he’s giving you an opportunity to be on the field.”

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Indeed, position doesn’t seem to be as important to Quinn as finding a way to best way to utilize each of his players’ skills.

“It’s about his development and the way he develops players and implements his system. He came in and trusted his system, and it works," Allen said. "He knows what type of players, what type of attitude and effort he needs for each position and gets it done."

Beasley might have benefitted most from the change, even if his was the least dramatic. He went from recording just four sacks as a rookie to leading the NFL with 15 1/2 this year. Defensive coordinator Richard Smith helped Beasley model his game after Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller, whom Smith coached from 2011-14 in Denver.

“He made a really big leap, and I’m very proud of him,” Smith said recently. “And hopefully he can continue to improve and play better in this next game and then carry it over to next season.”

For Allen, Beasley and Upshaw, the position changes started in the offseason. Sometimes the move was gradual, like for Upshaw, and sometimes all at once, like it was for Allen, who studied Seahawks tape to try to emulate Earl Thomas. Beasley moved into the role Bruce Irvin played for Quinn in Seattle, and Upshaw aimed to become a versatile lineman in the mold of Michael Bennett.

“In training camp, we go through everything you can study. We all do zone. We all do man to man. We all get a chance to play all over the field," Allen said. "We all do the same drills, and I feel like (Quinn) can break down those drills and when he sees what you’re really good at, he’s going to put you in the right spot to be successful.”

Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones.

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