Erik Harris’ steady hands help in Falcons secondary

FLOWEREY BRANCH -- Falcons free safety Erik Harris believes the secondary is headed for better days.

The unit struggled in the 43-3 loss to Dallas on Nov. 14, but rebounded against the Patriots in their most recent outing.

The Falcons (4-6) are set to face the rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars (2-8) at 1 p.m. Sunday at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I think we responded well,” Harris said. “We got back to the Dallas game, and it was all three phases that took turns kind of falling apart at moments. I think the defense, we took a step in this past game.”

The Falcons will try to click on all cylinders against the Jags.

“Obviously, you go back and look at all of the film, we’ve got to play three phases,” Harris said. “That’s pretty generic to say that around the (NFL), but for this team to really thrive and come out of these close games, all three phases have to play well.”

Harris has been forced to stay at free safety the past two games with Jaylinn Hawkins out with an ankle injury.

“He’s a big part of what we do,” Harris said. “He’s gone in there, and he’s made big plays for us. Just his energy alone, he’s very energetic.”

Hawkins has an ankle injury came up before the Dallas game in warmups.

“He’s quiet, but he’s very energetic for our room,” Harris said. “You might not see him always having that type of spark outside of it, because he kind of stays to himself. When he’s around us, he brings a lot of energy. He’s a very good ball player.”

Harris played some nickel against the Saints.

The Falcons plan to continue mixing and matching in the slot at the nickel back position. They have used five different players to try to replace Isaiah Oliver.

Yeah, it depends on who we’re playing in the game and stuff like that,” secondary coach Jon Hoke said. “We’ve had different guys in there. We’ll continue to do that throughout the course of the year. Just kind of see what combination works the best.”

Richie Grant, Avery Williams, Darren Hall, Chris Williamson and Harris have showed up at nickel back for the Falcons.

Harris appears to be the preference, but he can’t go to nickel with Hawkins out. The coaches clearly are not comfortable yet with Grant. That’s why Williams had to play so much nickel against Dallas and got exposed.

“He’s doing good,” Hoke said of Williams on Nov. 12 before the Dallas showing. “He’s getting better every day. Smart young man and works hard. I will say this, about this group, they do work. They do not shy away from work. They study the game. It’s important to him, so it’s been very good that way.”

Harris’ flexibility has been helpful.

“I think it just comes down to being on the details,” Harris said. “Knowing the installs that we are putting in for the week and just playing fast. Doing things that we do well and just sticking to that.”

He doesn’t mind moving from safety to nickel back.

“That’s kind of been part of my journey,” Harris said. ”I just take pride in details and doing the small things right. Am I perfect every time that they move me around? I’m not perfect. But as far as being on the details and getting lined up and doing my assignment, that’s the thing that coaches get frustrated about (when you mess up those things).”

Harris bounced back up after being on the end of hard run by New England’s Damien Harris.

“We get beat physically in this game,” Harris said. “Everybody gets paid to do that. It’s just about lining up and playing ball.”

The Falcons have modest goals for their defense.

“You’ve got to be efficient on third downs and in the red zone,” Harris said.

Harris believes the pass defense has improved. They did get three sacks and an interception against the Patriots.

“We always talk about the rush and the coverage have to marry up,” Harris said. “Sometimes they get sacks because we cover well. Sometimes we get picks because they rush well. It just marries together. When those two things are off, it can be rough.”

Jacksonville running back James Robinson, who averages 5.1 yards per carry, is on the Falcons’ radar screen.

“They are putting a lot on his plate,” Harris said. “I think he’s going a good job. I think he’s making the most of his opportunities.”

Falcons coach Arthur Smith also felt the defense turned in a good showing against the Patriots.

“It’s a 13-point game all the way until the middle part of the fourth quarter, and that’s a hell of an effort from the defense,” Smith said. “For an offense that was scoring a lot of points coming in. Obviously, we didn’t like what happened down in Dallas, and they stepped up.”

Smith would like to see some continued growth.

“Our guys are going to play hard,” Smith said. “They compete. They’re flying around to the football. It’s a shame we didn’t put together a complete game because the defense, I thought, played really well.”

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