Falcons’ defensive line group hit hard by COVID-19

Jess Simpson coach Buford High to seven state titles.

Jess Simpson coach Buford High to seven state titles.

Since Marlon Davidson was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Oct. 13, the Falcons have taken extensive measures to make sure that the coronavirus did not spread throughout the team.

Still, the defensive line room has been hit hard.

In addition to Davidson, defensive end John Cominsky was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Oct. 17, defensive line coach Jess Simpson tested positive and defensive pass-rush coordinator Tosh Lupoi was held back from the Minnesota game for contact tracing.

This week, defensive tackle Deadrin Senat has not been allowed to practice because he was exposed to Davidson. Also, the defensive line group warmed up on a separate field away from the rest of the team Wednesday and Thursday.

“They were down on their own field,” Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said Friday. “They did their thing as far as some of the adjustments. (Friday) in walk-through and in practice is the first time the whole team will be able to be together as far as the defensive line and the whole defense in practice today.”

The Falcons were proactive in trying to avoid a situation like the Las Vegas Raiders, who placed four offensive linemen on the reserve/COVID-19 list Thursday.

“First of all, I thought the organization did an amazing job of going beyond the protocols of the league,” defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “(President and CEO) Rich McKay and (interim coach Raheem Morris) obviously, they held those guys out as a precautionary thing for the entire team and for the guys that were held out. I want to commend them for that.”

Even though Davidson and Cominsky are role players, the Falcons, who were 0-5, had to weigh the balance of winning against the health of the team.

“A lot of guys get blown away by wanting to win and needing to win and don’t do things like that,” Ulbrich said. “That was not league-mandated. That was a decision that the organization made. I thought that was really cool.”

With Davidson and Cominsky out, veterans Steven Means and Allen Bailey picked up more playing time in the win over the Vikings last week.

Simpson, the legendary high school coach who led Buford High to seven state titles, joined the Falcons’ staff in 2017. He went to coach the defensive line at Miami before returning to the staff in 2019.

Simpson, who reportedly is doing well, and Lupoi helped to prepare the defensive line virtually up until the day of the game against the Vikings.

“I thought Jess and Tosh did an amazing job in that way," Ulbrich said. "They were connected to those guys all the way until Sunday morning in virtual meetings.”

Lupoi returned full-time on Friday. “Tosh was obviously caught in the cluster with the contact tracing and those type of things that we use here,” Morris said.

It was kind of weird seeing the defensive line group on their own field, but separating position groups is an important protocol as NFL teams try to keep playing during the coronavirus pandemic.

“With all of the COVID restrictions, it’s hard to really get a sense because you’re not around everybody that much,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “A lot of what we’re doing is virtual.”

Practice is when most of the team is together.

“Beyond that, it’s pretty much all been broken up into virtual meetings and into position groups,” Ryan said. “I can say that our quarterback room is pretty much the same as it is every week. We focus on our routine and hammering out the film early in the week and going through the plan. It’s very matter of fact and business-like.”

After Davidson went on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the NFL was worried about it spreading within the Falcons and the Carolina Panthers, the team the Falcons played the previous week. Davidson played 12 of 65 defensive snaps (18%) and five special teams snaps (18%) in the game and was placed on the list less than 72 hours after the game.

“We did have a player (Davidson) test positive from Monday’s test and we found out on Tuesday,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer. "Obviously, we did what we always do, go in to contact tracing and any identification of any high-risk individuals, removing them as well and the index player.

The Panthers were notified immediately.

“We out of abundance of caution begin our intensify protocol both in Atlanta and Carolina,” Sills said. “Carolina obviously played against Atlanta on Sunday. So, with a player testing positive from Monday’s test, we always have to assume there could have been a potential exposure on the field. So, we put Carolina in that intensive protocol just to be on the safe side.”

The league and the Falcons anticipated that many more cases could follow Davidson’s.

“We’ve had them in the intensive protocol specifically knowing that other cases could arise, since we did have that index case on Sunday into Monday,” Sills said. “Once again, we’ve done contact tracing to identify any high-risk individuals that we would need to remove.”

Cominsky and Simpson would later test positive. Senat played in the game against Minnesota, but has since been separated from the team.

The Falcons held a virtual practice Oct. 15 to mitigate any possible new cases. Cominsky was held out of practice Friday and put on the list Saturday.

“We’ll obviously continue to monitor that situation very carefully and stay in contact with (the Falcons) as well as in Carolina,” Sills said.

Cominsky, Davidson and cornerback A.J. Terrell were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list since the season started.

Overall, 10 Falcons have been placed on the list.

Safety Jamal Carter, fullback Keith Smith, safety Chris Cooper, rookie safety Jaylinn Hawkins, defensive tackle Tyeler Davison, quarterback Danny Etling and linebacker Foye Oluokun all served stints on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Etling later was released.

Falcons' next four games

Lions at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25

Falcons at Panthers at 8:20 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29

Broncos at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8

Falcons at Saints at 1 pBro.m. Sunday, Nov. 22

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