FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Marquand Manuel has taught Atlanta’s defense how to do a better job of closing out games in his first season as an NFL coordinator.
It took a few weeks for Manuel, a longtime defensive back and assistant coach out of the University of Florida, to get comfortable calling plays for the Falcons, but the defense has improved noticeably from a year ago.
He got the job in February, promoted from secondary coach after the Falcons blew the biggest lead in Super Bowl history — 25 points — to suffer a humiliating loss to New England.
In replacing Richard Smith, Manuel has essentially the same personnel from a season ago, but he’s helped Atlanta thanks in large part to greatly reducing potent plays.
The Falcons ranked No. 8 in passes allowed of at least 20 yards, up 15 spots from last season. They went from 25th in runs allowed of at least 20 yards to No. 2 this season.
Manuel’s challenge this week is to draw up a game plan that will help Atlanta (11-6) come away with an NFC divisional playoff victory at Philadelphia (13-3).
It won’t be easy, but he credits the years he spent coaching under Pete Carroll in Seattle and under Dan Quinn in Seattle and Atlanta with building the confidence he needs to succeed in pressure situations.
“Understanding the situations, how to call it, how are you going to respond?” Manuel said Tuesday. “Are you going to be emotional or are you going to keep everyone poised? Again it goes back to getting the players prepared and also having that experience I have to get the coaches prepared.
“So that has been a blessing within itself and it’s been awesome just to watch the guys go out. We understood that to be road warriors you have to do the small details right, day in and day out.”
Quinn knew Manuel was the man for the job and didn’t look outside the building to make the hire. They had worked together for several years in Seattle. Manuel came with Quinn from the Seahawks and spent his first two seasons in Atlanta coaching defensive backs.
“He was waiting patiently for his opportunity at this shot,” Quinn said, “and he’s certainly taken advantage of it in terms of implementing the style and communication that we like to get across for the defense.”
Manuel is still annoyed with how poorly the Falcons played in a Week 10 loss at Philadelphia last season, giving up 429 yards and allowing the Eagles to hold the ball for 38 minutes in a nine-point loss.
“They hit us in the mouth,” he said. “So we have to be prepared for that.”
He also vividly remembers how ragged the Falcons looked this season against Jay Ajayi, the only running back to rush for 100 yards against Atlanta until the Rams’ Todd Gurley did the same in last week’s playoff win at Los Angeles.
Manuel sees this week’s NFC divisional matchup at Philadelphia as a chance to right two wrongs.
The Falcons aren’t just looking for payback against the Eagles. They’re also are eager to get another shot at Ajayi, who led Miami to a 20-17 win in Week 5 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but was traded in late October after Philadelphia lost Darren Sproles to a season-ending injury.
Philadelphia has a tough 1-2 punch at running back with Ajayi’s speed and LeGarrette Blount’s inside power game.
“We don’t have a (complicated) defense, but we are very detailed,” Manuel said. “And the detail of expectations of understanding that they have to make our defense come to life, and they’re doing an awesome job at it.”