Falcons coach Dan Quinn is exploring all the cracks and crevices to find a way to win.
On Sunday alone, he went for it twice on fourth downs against the Broncos. He used an offensive lineman in the defensive line. With the linebacker corps down four players, he used strong safety Kemal Ishmael to play linebacker.
Result: a 23-16 victory over the previously unbeaten Broncos.
All of those moves worked. The Falcons converted both fourth downs, closing out one drive with a touchdown and then keeping a 17-play, 7-minute field-goal drive moving. The offensive lineman recorded a sack. Ishmael led the team in tackles.
Near the end of training camp, without being asked, Quinn would bring up the fact that Ben Garland, a converted defensive tackle playing offensive guard/center, was performing well.
Garland, a former undrafted player out of Air Force, played three snaps at defensive tackle against the Broncos and sacked quarterback Paxton Lynch. The play was nullified by penalty.
“That was a blast,” Garland said. “I had so much fun.”
Garland spent part of last week practicing with the defensive linemen.
“We were kind of talking about it all week,” left tackle Jake Matthews said. “We weren’t surprised when he went in there. The guy is a ball player. He has a great motor. That was exciting to see one of the (offensive) linemen in there making some plays.”
Garland (6-foot-5 and 308 pounds) is from Grand Junction, Colo., so he was thrilled to play against the Broncos, who originally signed him after college. After Denver released him, he was signed to the Falcons practice squad team and was converted to an offensive lineman.
“Most of my family was able to make it out to the game or they were watching,” Garland said. “To do it in front of them was even better.”
Garland, a former Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, serves as a captain in the Colorado Air National Guard at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo., in the offseason.
“It was really cool. My guard members from the base were actually there and I was able to talk to them before the game and see them,” Garland said.
The Falcons previously used Garland for one snap in the defensive line against the Saints.
“I tried it in practice and we were ready for it last week as well,” Quinn said. “He played a little bit on goal line (against the Saints). Now, anytime we need all hands on deck, the versatility for all players across the ball, it takes a lot of work. And Ben put the time in this week to get ready and help us with the base package.”
The Falcons knew the Broncos wanted to run the ball in order to protect the rookie Lynch. In addition to using Garland, the team kept defensive tackle Courtney Upshaw active in order to have some bigger bodies to wear down the Broncos offensive line.
The plan worked. The Falcons held the Broncos to 84 yards rushing on 24 carries (3.5 per carry).
Garland is ready to serve if needed.
“If he wants me to play tight end, fullback, linebacker or safety, I don’t care,” Garland said. “If he gives me that opportunity, I’ll give it my best on the field.”
Ishmael had played some linebacker in the dime defense last season. He ended up leading the Falcons in tackles with 10 on Sunday.
“We put him down in the box and he plays a lot of that as a strong safety. But we just moved him in a little closer,” Quinn said.
The move is not permanent. Quinn hopes to get some of his linebackers back from the injured list this week.