Falcons bracing to face Gruden, resurgent Raiders

Falcons head coach Raheem Morris watches the action on the field Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, against the Saints in New Orleans. Atlanta lost 24-9. (Tyler Kaufman/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Falcons head coach Raheem Morris watches the action on the field Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, against the Saints in New Orleans. Atlanta lost 24-9. (Tyler Kaufman/AP)

In 2002, Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

He hired current Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris as a quality-control coach, an entry-level coaching job in NFL.

Their paths will cross Sunday when the Falcons (3-7) host the Raiders (6-4) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“The love I have for him, I can’t even express on this conference (call) right now because of what he did for my career,” Morris said.

Morris was coaching defensive backs in the college ranks at Hofstra and Cornell before he was hired by the Bucs.

“He was one of the first people that taught me how to work, how to put your time into it, how to come into work and absolutely beat people to work and thrive in that environment,” Morris said. “Being the first one in, the effort that he has to put the work in and what he brought to the game and how much he loved football.”

The Bucs went on to Super Bowl XXXVII in Gruden’s first season and made a lasting impression on Morris.

“His care for his coaching staff and everybody around him, his energy that he brought to the practice field, the amount of opportunities he gave to me to grow as a coach,” Morris said.

After a season, Morris was promoted to defensive assistant and later defensive coordinator. He ended up replacing Gruden when Gruden was fired in 2009.

Gruden went to the TV booth and returned to the sidelines in 2018 as he returned to the Raiders, where he’d been the head coach from 1998-2001.

“You’re talking about one of the legendary coaches in this game in my opinion and somebody that I will always love dearly and deeply,” Morris said. “This week, we have to go up and face him.”

Other than his work ethic, Morris said he took several other lessons from Gruden, who broke into NFL with San Francisco in 1990 and went to Green Bay on Mike Holmgren’s staff in 1992.

“It had to be his love for football,” Morris said of his favorite Gruden lesson. “It’s something that’s just contagious. The amount that he loves football and how much he cares about it, you can’t help but be around him and find ways to love football.

“He’s always been big into personnel. He’s always been big into people and his ability to go out and identify exactly what he wants in positions and in position groups.”

So, it’s no surprise to Morris that Gruden has the Raiders looking like a playoff team in just his third season back.

“They looked very explosive (Sunday) night,” Morris said. “They came out and executed well. They played a high-intensity game, a divisional game of their own versus (Kansas City). That game was phenomenal. Obviously, went down to the wire. So, we’ll be ready to deal with that stuff as we look at it and move forward now.”

The Raiders are paced by quarterback Derek Carr and tight end Darren Waller, a former North Cobb High and Georgia Tech standout. Carr has completed 219 of 314 passes for 2,431 yards, 19 touchdowns and three interceptions. He has a passer rating of 108.7.

Waller has caught 60 passes for 519 yards and five touchdowns.

Running back Josh Jacobs is another key weapon. He’s rushed 199 times for 755 yards and nine touchdowns.

The Raiders defense is led by defensive end Maxx Crosby, who has six sacks and safety Johnathan Abram, who started his college career at Georgia before transferring to Mississippi State. He has 57 tackles, an interception and four quarterback hits.

“They are a zone-oriented four-down front team,” Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said.

The Raiders’ defense is not highly ranked in the key categories. They are 26th (points allowed, 27.6), 23rd (yards allowed, 385.8), 28th (passing yards allowed, 273.6) and 12th (rushing yards allowed, 112.2).

“They started the season maybe giving up a lot of yardage rushing,” Koetter said. “But the last month of the season, they are playing much faster on defense. I think when you play 10 games into the season, your stats tell one story, but how they are really playing well over the last month. They are playing much better than their stats indicate.”

Koetter noted that the Raiders beat the Chiefs earlier this season and lost to them in the final minutes Sunday.

“That shows how much better they are playing on defense,” Koetter said.

Falcons’ next four games

Raiders at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 29

Saints at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6

Falcons at Chargers at 4:25 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 13

Buccaneers at Falcons at 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 20

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