Sark and Marq: New Coordinators, Same Results?
Steve Sarkisian and Marquand Manuel are assuming new coordinator roles on a Super Bowl caliber team. What can they bring to the Falcons in 2017?
The 2016 Falcons’ offense bulldozed people. Atlanta’s historic offensive output catalyzed their unexpected Super Bowl run, showing no discrimination as they tossed both top-flight and basement-dwelling teams into the Brotherhood Wood Chipper. Kyle Shanahan showcased his acumen with the X’s and O’s, securing a head coaching position in San Francisco before the Falcons even boarded their flight for Houston.
The other side of the ball was another story entirely. Comprised of mostly first and second-year players, it was assumed–and mostly understood–that the defense was a work in progress. Linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell impressed immediately, along with undrafted cornerback Brian Poole and first-rounder Keanu Neal. But the squad didn’t seem to completely gel until Dan Quinn assumed play-calling duties after the bye week, shifting from passably pedestrian to surprisingly solid. Defensive coordinator Richard Smith’s services would not be retained for 2017.
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Shanahan and Smith’s departures marked the start of a staff shake-up, and gave the sports talking heads fodder for the “Falcons will inevitably regress” rigmarole.
When Atlanta announced the hiring of former USC head coach–and 60-minute Alabama offensive coordinator–Steve Sarkisian as the new OC and the promotion of secondary coach Marquand Manuel to defensive coordinator, the theme in some circles became “too much turnover will doom Atlanta.”
But Sark and Marq are bright, respected football minds in their own right, and will bring unique traits to the table in 2017.
Much to Falcons fans relief, it’s been established that Steve Sarkisian will deploy an offensive strategy similar to Kyle Shanahan’s. An emphasis on play-action roll-outs, an outside rushing attack and a zone-blocking scheme on the line will continue to be the touchstones of Atlanta’s high-powered offense. There will be no distinct departure from what the Falcons did best last season.
Dan Quinn elaborated on how scheme-fit played into the Sarkisian hire to AtlantaFalcons.com’s Andrew Hirsch back in February:
"“100 percent, that’s the style we want to feature moving forward. We love the way we attack and it took a lot of work to put that system in place. So along with Thomas, we had a real emphasis on the personnel and how we can feature guys into that system. It’s very important that we stay consistent with that.”"
One area that may undergo some welcome change is Sarkisian’s flexibility regarding Matt Ryan. Kyle Shanahan was notoriously stubborn when it came to featuring the best facets of Ryan’s game: running the no-huddle offense and calling pre-snap audibles. Matt Ryan has a keen ability to read defenses and adjust his personnel accordingly, one that Kyle Shanahan did not necessarily embrace and utilize. Shanahan was married to the progressions in his scheme–sometimes to a fault. Steve Sarkisian has signaled that he will allot the reigning NFL MVP more freedom to fill the role as field general and play a larger portion in the play-calling going forward.
That’s an encouraging sign for the Falcons.
Where the defense is concerned, Atlanta fans should be ecstatic over the promotion of Marquand Manuel. Acclaimed as one of the NFL’s most promising young defensive minds, Manuel’s ascension to Falcons’ defensive coordinator almost didn’t happen. A hot name on the coordinator market, Marquand accepted an interview with the Jacksonville Jaguars, ultimately rejecting their offer to assume the duties of passing-game coordinator.
Jacksonville’s low-ball gave Atlanta an opening, and they secured Manuel’s services as the new DC and kept him from skipping town.
By all accounts a player’s coach–he spent six years in the league as a safety–Manuel followed Dan Quinn to Atlanta to serve as his secondary coach. The maturation of Jalen Collins and the unexpected-but-impactful level of play from Brian Poole should be seen as satisfactory litmus tests as to Manuel’s capacity to coach up DBs.
Dan Quinn again via Andrew Hirsch:
"“We’ve got lots of respect for the way Marquand takes care of his side. His fire’s lit, and it does not go out. He’s a really passionate guy. Honestly, it’s just somebody that’s always constantly challenging to see if it can get done a little bit better. And honestly, that’s what the essence of a competitor is.”"
Marquand challenges his players as a fellow teammate would, and his impassioned style of coaching has already resonated and earned respect from rookies and veterans alike.
So much so, that Dan Quinn announced that he would assume defensive play-calling duties in 2017, a responsibility which was removed from Richard Smith last season. Manuel has quickly earned Quinn’s confidence and trust, and if he continues to develop the defense in the way he fostered the growth of the secondary, he’ll earn the same from Atlanta Falcons fans.
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There should be no expectation that Atlanta will reproduce 2016’s eye-popping offensive numbers, nor should fans anticipate a defense as subpar as it was for the bulk of the season. Steve Sarkisian and Marquand Manuel are different men with presumably different ideas, but both share Dan Quinn’s fast and physical model for the Atlanta Falcons. Steve Sarkisian’s scheme is congruent to Kyle Shanahan’s, and Marquand Manuel inherits a young defense on the rise that he can continue to mold.
Both should be expected to add their own flourishes to the Falcons, but maintain the same all for one and one for all ethos that propelled Atlanta to the Super Bowl in 2016.