Falcons have ‘big-picture vision’ for revamped defense

The unit will get tested early in the regular season
Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman Ruke Orhorhoro runs drills during an NFL football mini training camp practice on Tuesday, May 14, 2024, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman Ruke Orhorhoro runs drills during an NFL football mini training camp practice on Tuesday, May 14, 2024, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

FLOWERY BRANCH — While much of the offseason focus has been on the quarterback position and the utilization of the stockpiled offensive weaponry, the Falcons’ defense, especially after the schedule was released, deserves some much-needed attention.

The unit, which is being revamped under new coach Raheem Morris and first-time NFL defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake, will get a four-game stress test to open the season.

The Falcons are set to see Pittsburgh’s Russell Wilson, Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and New Orleans’ Derek Carr in the first four games of the 2024 season.

The Falcon addressed the front seven of the defense in the draft, but did not draft a player for the secondary.

“The vision doesn’t change,” Morris said. “We kind of talk about a little bit, talk about those parts, being movable parts. You know, just getting those guys, all in the same room and be able to get some youth in that room. I’ve got some aging veterans, Grady (Jarrett) is still playing at a high level and D.O. (David Onyemata is) playing at a high level.”

After the Falcons stunned most of the NFL universe by taking a quarterback with the eighth overall pick, they came away with three defensive linemen and two linebackers in the draft. They also drafted a running back and a wide receiver.

“We wanted to add big people with good length in that (group),” Morris said. “That was a big, high priority for us. To be able to do that thing, we were very excited coming out of the draft with that happening.”

Defensive linemen Ruke Orhorhoro (6-foot-4, 294 pounds), Brandon Dorlus (6-3, 283) and Zion Logue (6-6, 314) all are long and big.

“I met those guys at the (NFL Scouting Combine),” Orhorhoro said. “We were together the whole time in Group 1. So, when I saw them get drafted, I was shoot, it’s a party again. We are here now.”

Logue, a former Georgia Bulldog, had to pinch himself when he saw his Falcons jersey in his locker.

“I’m actually in the NFL now,” Logue said. “I’m just trying to get that aspect out of my head and still remember that it’s just football. It’s a game that I’ve been playing since I was a child. Just go out and give it everything that I have.”

Linebackers Bralen Trice and JD Bertrand also were added to the defensive front.

“Now, you get a chance to see those guys out on the field together and (see) how that’s going to form,” Morris said. “How that’s going to mold out.”

In addition to Jarrett and Onyemata, Kentavious Street, LaCale London, Ta’Quon Graham and Zach Harrison received snaps along the defensive line last season. The Falcons also have defensive linemen Bradlee Anae, Demone Harris, James Smith-Williams, Tommy Togiai, Eddie Goldman and Willington Previlon on the 90-man roster.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Morris said. “There is going to be a lot of competition.”

The offseason basically is for conditioning for the defensive linemen.

“Those guys are tough to grade up until training camp when the physicality of everything begins,” Morris said. “That will be a lot of fun for us to get going. The techniques and some of the small, minute details that you have to get done up front. Can’t want to get those guys going. It’s a big-picture vision for those guys.”

Morris believes that Jarrett is recovering well from the knee surgery that cut his 2023 season short. Jarrett can be what the coaches call “the tip of the spear” of the defense.

“With Grady, it’s really funny, it’s not even a conversation,” Morris said. “It’s almost the look in his eye. I attended a rookie community event that he was at. Just listen to him talk about his passion for Atlanta. … I just know what he wants to do for this city and how passionate he is about winning for the city.”

Jarrett’s presence will be important for the young defensive linemen.

“It’s really Aaron Donald-like, it’s a lot and that how much respect we have for Grady and how much respect (Donald) had for Grady,” Morris said of his former player, the eight-time All-Pro defensive tackle who retired over the offseason. “But that presence is really special when you have that in that room.”

Outside linebacker Arnold Ebiketie is looking forward to his role along the defensive front of the 3-4 alignment.

“Going into my third defense, there are a lot of similarities when you get into it,” Ebiketie said. “It’s not as hard as it would have been my rookie year.”

Lakes will be his third defensive coordinator after one season of Dean Pees and another one under Ryan Nielsen.

“We’re going to play fast, physical and play free,” Ebiketie said. “I’m excited because (those are) some of the things I love to do, just playing fast and free. Not (needing) to think as much. I think that brings the best out of you.”

Ebiketie likes the flow of the offseason.

“This part of the year is more so about fundamentals,” Ebiketie said. “Muscle memory. Just fundaments and knowing your keys. When you put the pads on, you want to play free.”

The Falcons lined up during the open portion OTAs with Mike Hughes at cornerback opposite of A.J. Terrell. However, Clark Phillips, who was the starter at the end of last season, is still a contender.

“Really excited about Clark,” Morris said. “He has had elite movement put on tape.”

But for the defense, the offseason is hard. They have to fight against their natural instincts search and destroy ball carriers, including Phillips.

“Stay up,” Morris said. “Don’t hit them. Stay off the ground. Don’t cause the confrontation, but (Phillips has) done a really nice job with the elite movement. He’s done a really nice job with mixing and matching.”

Phillips was a rookie last season.

“Putting in the work in individual (drills) in order to align himself to throw a great training camp,” Phillips said. “I’m really excited about the young man, the player and about what he potentially can do.”

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