In his short time with the Falcons, Dan Quinn has done a tremendous job identifying defensive players and using them in ways that illuminate their strengths. Free agent acquisitions O'Brien Schofield and Adrian Clayborn, for instance, have grown into their new roles; Ricardo Allen's transition to free safety has gone well; Kroy Biermann has improved greatly since the new regime took over, especially in the run game.
Another good example of Quinn's keen eye is the addition of Philip Wheeler. The Georgia Tech alumnus, signed on Oct. 20, has quickly learned Atlanta's playbook and established himself as a valuable member of the team's linebacker corps. When Justin Durant injured an ankle against Minnesota, Wheeler stepped right in and led the team in tackles (11) to go along with six stops.
"I'm just playing football. I've been doing it all my life," the former Dolphin said Monday. "When I get out there, it's the same thing I've been doing, so it's not a big deal … This is my eighth year, so I've played a lot of football. It's like coming back to instincts, like riding a bike—once you get back on it you're ready to go."
Wheeler, 30, was one of the league's most productive OLBs in 2012, when he racked up 106 tackles, 14 QB hits, three sacks and two forced fumbles as a Raider. But a two-year stint with Miami, where he didn't believe he fit the scheme in place, lowered his stock. A cup of coffee in San Francisco didn't work out, either, so he entered the 2015 campaign without a job.
Recent adversity notwithstanding, Atlanta knew Wheeler could help out based on his performance in Oakland, where the defensive mindset was akin to the one Quinn employs today: play fast, play physical, rely on natural talents. Because of the similarities, it didn't take long for him to get up to speed.
"It's simple. Our coaches believe in us," Wheeler said. "More than trying to make the perfect call, (Quinn) believes in us making plays and being able to execute … I think here, our coaches believe in us and believe in our ability to make plays without calling a special defense, a special call. (Quinn) just knows we're going to make a play."
Although he missed out on the bonding that come with summer workouts, training camp and preseason, Wheeler has quickly acclimated himself to the Falcons' locker room. Fitting in has been a breeze, he claims, and with a big slate of games on the horizon, the hardened vet should be an important contributor as the Falcons vie for a playoff berth.
"We have lots of faith in Philip," Quinn said. "He's played different scenarios—he's played Mike, he's played Will (linebacker). He's an experienced player and one we totally count on."