Falcons’ 2022 season review: defensive backs

FLOWERY BRANCH — Without much pass-rush help from the defensive front, the Falcons’ secondary didn’t hold up well in coverage in 2022.

Opponents passed for 231.9 yards per game, which ranked 25th in the NFL. The opposition averaged 7.03 yards per pass play, which ranked 29th, and converted on 45.91% of its third downs, which ranked 31st in the league.

One of the key factors was losing right cornerback Casey Hayward, who suffered a shoulder injury after six games and was lost for the season.

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Darren Hall didn’t hold up at right cornerback, and safety Jaylinn Hawkins also struggled at times in coverage.

Richie Grant, in his first season at safety, was solid. Left cornerback A.J. Terrell and Isaiah Oliver played well.

“That’s why we matched him up on some of the best receivers every week,” former Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees said of Terrell. “If we didn’t think he was playing at that level, we wouldn’t do that. The thing of it is with that, sometimes when you look and he doesn’t get targeted as much.”

Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 102 when throwing at Terrell, compared with a team-high 114 when passing at Hall.

Hayward, who was off to a good start, was holding teams to 80.7.

Despite the numbers, Pees insisted that Terrell was playing at an elite level.

“Let’s say he only gets targeted three times in a game, but one of them is a catch, so it looks like percentage-wise it doesn’t look as good, but he’s always playing on the best receiver,” Pees said. “You always have to weigh that stuff into account.”

Terrell had a 63.9 grade (D) from Pro Football Focus, in part because he gave up six touchdown catches.

“Sometimes, we didn’t match him up, whatever,” Pees said. “But I think he’s played well. When you are asking a guy to take on the best guy ... what I like is the fact that he longs for that assignment. He likes it. He wants to be that guy. That’s what you want. You want a corner (to say), ‘Yeah, give me that dude.’ ”

Oliver, who had reconstructive knee surgery, returned to his nickel back slot. He started five games and played in 12. He spent some time at safety at the end of the season.

“He played one of the best defensive back games since I’ve been around,” Pees said of Oliver’s play against the Ravens on Dec. 24. “He had a helluva game. Sack, a tackle for loss, a couple of (pass breakups). Playing nickel. Playing safety.”

Oliver is set to become a free agent in March.

Grant, who was taken in the second round (40th overall) in 2021, started all 17 games. He finished with 123 tackles and had two interceptions.

He allowed three touchdowns, 31 catches and had a 64.9 grade (D), according to profootballfocus.com.

Hawkins, who rotated with Oliver in the last two games, started 16 games and finished with two interceptions and 84 tackles.

He gave up four touchdown passes, 18 receptions and had a grade of 59.8 (F).

Hall, a fourth-round pick in 2021, ended the season working with the scout team in practice as the Falcons elected to play Cornell Armstrong.

Hayward, a former Pro Bowl player, wants to return. He was signed to a two-year, $11 million deal last offseason.

“It’s going to depend on what they want to do, but I want to play one more year,” Hayward said. “That’s my ultimate goal: to play one more year ... This is a business, and I know how that goes. I’m from Georgia. I have a house here.”

After having his surgery, Hayward stayed around the team and even traveled to some road games to try to help the younger cornerbacks.

“I definitely feel like we’ll be a lot better, especially on defense as a team,” Hayward said. “That will be the killer part, we’ll be a lot better, and hopefully I can be a part of that. But if not, I know I want to play next year.”

Veteran safety Erik Harris played 33 snaps from scrimmage but helped out with 299 snaps on special teams.

“I think moving forward, this is really a special group,” Harris said.

Harris wants to return.

“I always have a plan, but the big man upstairs always has a plan as well,” Harris said. “He’ll put me where he needs me, not really where I want to be necessarily. God willing, I’ll play another year. I would love to come back; obviously, that’s not always under our control.”

Falcons’ position-by-position analysis:

Part 1: Running backs

Part 2: Quarterbacks

Part 3: Wide receivers/tight ends

Part 4: Offensive line

Part 5: Defensive line

Part 6: Linebackers

Part 7: Defensive backs

Part 8: Special teams

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