Falcons assistant head coach/wide receivers Raheem Morris chats up wide receiver Aldrick Robinson after a play during an OTA day on Tuesday, June 7, 2016, in Flowery Branch.
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com

Cover 9@9: Can Raheem Morris save the Falcons’ defense? 

1. Morris to the rescue. After stints in the college ranks at Hofstra and Cornell, Raheem Morris broke into the NFL as a defensive quality control assistant with Tampa Bay in 2002. 

He was a defensive assistant the next season before landing the assistant defensive backs coaching spot in 2004.

In 2006, Morris went back to the college ranks for a year. He was on Ron Prince’s staff at Kansas State as the defensive coordinator. Penn State coach James Franklin was the offensive coordinator. 

After just one season, Morris went back to the NFL as Tampa Bay’s defensive backs coach. In 2007,  the Bucs defense, with the help of Morris, became the league’s top pass defense as they gave up just 170.5 yards per game.

Former Georgia Bulldog Jermaine Phillips was the strong safety and the great Ronde Barber was the top cornerback on Morris’ unit that season. 

In 2009, Morris was named the defensive coordinator after Monte Kiffin left to join his son, Lane, at Tennessee. 

But in January 2019, the Bucs fired Jon Gruden and Morris was named the head coach. He’d also interviewed for the Denver job. 

After going 3-13 in 2009, the Bucs posted a 10-6 mark and appeared to have turned the corner. But the bottom fell out and Morris was fired after the Bucs went 4-12, which included them losing their last 10 games. 

After getting fired in 2011, Morris went to Washington as their defensive backs coach from 2012-14 before joining Dan Quinn’s staff in Atlanta as the assistant head coach/defensive backs coach in 2015. 

After one season, he moved over to offense to coach the wide receivers.

With the defensive secondary in need of help, Quinn announced on Monday that Morris would move back over defense to help in the struggling secondary. 

There are a lot of issues for Morris to address. He’ll work with passing game coordinator Jerome Henderson and defensive backs coach Doug Mallory. 

The secondary isn’t creating turnovers, there have been blown coverages and missed tackles galore. They are minus-11 in turnover differential, which ranks 31st in the league. 

Cornerback Desmond Trufant has the team’s only interceptions with two. 

The Falcons have given up 261.1 yards passing a game, which ranks 23rd in the league. The secondary has allowed 17 touchdown passes, which ranks 28th in the league and they  have given up 31 plays of 20 yards or more, which ranks 23rd in the league. 

If Morris can’t tighten things up in the secondary, perhaps the defense’s pass rush can make some strides with tighter coverage. 

“I remember going to the combine and being interviewed by Raheem,” Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen said. “I know that he was a DB coach there, too. Being able to have him back on our side, having that perspective from offense, can only help.”

Allen was on the defense in 2015, when Morris worked with the defensive backs. 

“He finds out your strengths and your weaknesses by just studying you,” Allen said. “He’s going to make you do those on a different level. Yes, he’s going to always focus on your weaknesses to help you get better. But at the beginning, he’s going to always focus on your strengths and what you do the best and make sure that is shown.”

Morris’ has his own coaching style. 

“He’s a straight-shooter,” Allen said. “He’s going to keep it 100. You’re going to know exactly your accountability to the play and your accountability to your brothers. He’s a straight-shooter and he’s going to tell you what your part is and who was a part of the play.”

After getting rid of defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel after last season, Quinn took over the play-calling. But Manuel also spent time with the defensive backs, who appeared lost at times over the first eight games.

Morris’s job will require him to get the defensive backs on track and cut down or eliminate the blown coverages. 

“He’s a great teacher,” Allen said. “He understands the ins and outs of both sides. That’s why it makes it so easy for him to transition to offense and now he’s bringing back the offensive knowledge to help us out a little bit more.” 

Falcons safety Ricardo Allen talks about the move of Falcons assistant Raheem Morris back to defense. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter)

2. National Hate Week. The Saints (7-1) are cruising, perhaps on their way to a third-consecutive NFC South title, but don’t expect them to take it easy on the beleaguered Falcons (1-7). 

The Falcons, who are double-digit underdogs, face their rivals at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. 

“It’s like national Hate Week this week,” Saints defensive end Cam Jordan told the New Orleans media on Monday. “Ain’t no don’t eat the cheese. At the end of the day, they have extremely talented players.”

While the Falcons’ defense is ranked near the bottom of the league in most key statistical categories, the Saints are aware of the team’s offensive weaponry. 

“You’ve got your tight end (Austin Hooper) who’s playing at an extremely high level,” Jordan said. “You talk about what Julio (Jones) has been able to do year-in and year-out. What he’s able to do this season. Just the catches that he’s made. You talk about (Calvin) Ridley as he’s progressing as a receiver being able to run all of the routes. 

“When you have (center) Alex Mack, you can do a lot of things.”

Jordan, who leads the Saints with eight sacks, didn’t stop there as he gave Mack, a “Go Cal Bears” shout out.

3. Brees is back. The Saints posted five straight wins behind backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The ageless Drew Brees returned from a broken thumb to lead them to a 31-9 win over the Arizona Cardinals before the bye week. 

Brees completed 34 of 43 passes for 373 yards, three touchdowns and one interception against the Cardinals. He finished with a passer rating of 116.4.

“He was sharp,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I thought he located the ball well. He had a good week of practice. He really threw it well in practice and I thought in the game the same way. The one interception was a play he’d want back, but overall I thought not having played in five weeks, six weeks coming in, I thought he did a good job.”

Most thought Brees should not have rushed back. With the bye week looming he could have two extra weeks to let the thumb heal. 

“He understands exactly where we're at as a team and we just communicated, payed close attention to it, and shoot it looked good,” Payton said. “He felt good and I don't think there was a hiccup relative to the decision to start him.”

4. Kamara watch. Also, running back Alvin Kamara, who played at Norcross High and Alabama and Tennessee, missed the Cardinals game with knee and ankle injuries. Running back Latavius Murray rushed 21 times for 102 yards and a touchdown. He also caught 9 of 12 targets out of the backfield for 55 yards in the passing game. 

The Saints’ offense is built around getting the ball to dynamic wide receiver Michael Thomas, who has caught 73 passes for 874 yards and four touchdowns. 

5. Rushing attack meek. Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said the coaching staff put the entire offensive operation under a microscope over the bye week and came up with several conclusions. 

“You look at it from every angle,” Koetter said on Monday. “You confirm all of the stuff that you already knew. There are some things that you are doing well and it’s like why don’t we do that more. Other things that we are not doing well, you say, we have to do that better. Or we need to stop trying to do it, one or the other.”

They were not pleased with the rushing attack, which is averaging 68.5 yards per game, third from the bottom in the 32 team NFL. 

“From an efficient standpoint and an explosive standpoint, it’s not where we need it to be,” Koetter said. “Not where we want it to be.” 

The Falcons hope to make some strides over the second half of the season, 

“That’s one of the areas where I think we can make the most improvement in the second half of the year is in the run game,” Koetter said. “We just have to be more consistent across the board. That’s everything from sustaining blocks to our tracks to our blocking on the perimeter.”

Running back Devonta Freeman has rushed 97 times for 333 yards, for a 3.4 average per carry and does not have a rushing touchdown on the season. Backup Ito Smith, who’s in the concussion protocol has rushed 22 times from 106 yards.

Brian Hill had a nice 23-yard touchdown run against the Seahawks in the team’s last outing.

The Saints give up 84.3 yards per game, which ranks fourth in the league. 

“Devonta Freeman is healthy and that makes them dangerous by far,” Saints defensive end Cam Jordan said. 

“It’s going to be on us to try to make them one dimensional as possible.”

Kicker Younghoe Koo talks about the opportunity to play in Atlanta. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

6. Lindstrom watch: Right guard Chris Lindstrom, the Falcons first-round pick (14th overall) suffered a foot injury in the season-opening loss to the Vikings. He was placed on injured reserved with a designation to return.

Lindstrom has a 21-day practice window. He can return anytime after missing eight games. The Saints’ game will be his eighth. 

“Well, the best way you'll know is when we can activate him,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said on Monday. “Then there's a window that can go for when we can get started on him.” While the time is close to passing, Lindstrom still must be medically cleared to return. 

“It still comes down to the doctors and where they're at, and he'll have some more checkups in the next couple weeks to see where that goes,” Quinn said. 

The Falcons are hopeful Lindstrom will make it back. 

“He's hit all the markers that we'd wanted him to hit,” Quinn said. “Now it's a matter of where he is on the healing side of things. All indications are that he's off to a great start and great comeback from where he wanted to be.”

Lindstrom had surgery to repair the fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot on Sept. 11. 

The earliest Lindstrom could return would be Game 10 against Carolina on Nov. 17. 

Last season, linebacker Deion Jones suffered a broken foot in the season opener and returned to play the final five games of the season. 

With Lindstrom out, Jamon Brown and Wes Schweitzer have started at right guard. 

7. Roster moves. Wide receiver Brandon Powell was elevated from the practice squad to the Falcons’ 53-man roster on Tuesday.

Powell, 23, was signed to the practice squad earlier this season. He played six games with the Lions last season. He caught 11 passes for 129 yards. 

The Falcons also signed offensive guard Anthony Coyle and safety CJ Reavis to the practice squad. 

8. Betting line. The Falcons opened as 12-point underdogs on betonline.ag .

The over/under score for the game is 51 points.

The Falcons and Saints both had a bye last week. The Saints won both games over the Falcons last season, 43-37 on Sept. 23 in Atlanta and 31-17 on Nov. 22 in New Orleans.

The Falcons lead the series 51-48 in regular-season games and are 1-0 over the Saints in the postseason.

9. Depth chart.   While the Falcons did some shuffling in coaching duties after the bye week evaluations, they left their official depth chart mostly in place.

The kicking game has been revamped as Younghoe Koo will take over as the kickoff specialist and field goal kicker, while Ryan Allen will be the holder and the punter. 

Allen became the fifth punter on the roster this season when he signed on Monday. 

Also, defensive end Jacob Tuioti-Mariner was placed behind Vic Beasley, who previously had no backup and we placed wide receiver Brandon Powell as the fourth receiver behind Calvin Ridley. He was added to the 53-man roster after the depth chart was released

Here’s the depth chart of the Saints’ game: 

OFFENSE

WR 11 Julio Jones, 83 Russell Gage, 13 Christian Blake 
LT 70 Jake Matthews, 73 Matt Gono 
LG 68 77 James Carpenter, 71 Wes Schweitzer 
C 51 Alex Mack, 71 Wes Schweitzer 
RG 68 Jamon Brown, 71 Wes Schweitzer 
RT 76 Kaleb McGary, 74 Ty Sambrailo 
TE 81 Austin Hooper, 80 Luke Stocker, 87 Jaeden Graham 
WR 18 Calvin Ridley, 14 Justin Hardy, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus, Brandon Powell
QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub 
RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 25 Ito Smith, 38 Kenjon Barner, 23 Brian Hill, 32 Qadree Ollison FB 40 Keith Smith

DEFENSE

DE 98 Takkarist McKinley, 99 Adrian Clayborn 
DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 95 Jack Crawford 
DT 96 Tyeler Davison, 94 Deadrin Senat 
DE 93 Allen Bailey, 50 John Cominsky 
DE 44 Vic Beasley, 91 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner 
LB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 54 Foyesade Oluokun 
LB 45 Deion Jones, 53 Jermaine Grace CB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 27 Damontae Kazee, 20 Kendall Sheffield
CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 28 Jordan Miller S 37 Ricardo Allen, 41 Sharrod Neasman 
SS 36 Kemal Ishmael, 35 Jamal Carter 

SPECIALISTS

K 7 Younghoe Koo
KO 7 Younghoe Koo
P 9 Ryan Allen 
LS 47 Josh Harris H 9 Ryan Allen 
KOR 38 Kenjon Barner 
PR Kenjon Barner

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About the Author

D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter is the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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