Raheem Morris has high hopes for revamped Falcons defense

During the NFL’s virtual offseason, Falcons defensive coordinator Raheem Morris contended that the plan was to get the best players on the field.

So, when the Falcons open the season at 1 p.m. Sunday against Seattle at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they plan to feature multiple alignments with three safeties on the field.

Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and Damontae Kazee all were listed as starters by the team in the first official depth chart of the 2020 season.

“We are lucky and fortunate in this league to have three guys that we view as starters,” Morris said Wednesday. “When you’re talking about Keke, Rico and Kazee. There will be times when those guys are on the field in a package. Actually, a few packages and there will be times when just two of them are on the field. We’ll use that a lot of the times.”

Neal is coming back from a ruptured Achilles that led to him miss the final 13 games last season. Allen eventually was moved from free safety to strong safety last season, while Kazee took over at free safety.

“We had a conversation with those guys going into it,” Morris said. “These guys have really done a nice of establishing their roles and putting themselves in position to play their roles. They’ve done a nice job in practice throughout camp.”

Allen, a former cornerback, said the Falcons plan to use him like the Kansas City Chiefs used Tyrann Mathieu, who covers tight ends and running backs in pass defense.

“I actually heard Kazee talking to you guys about it a little bit,” Morris said. “I was really excited to hear him accept it, embrace it and be ready to go out here and play our best football for a championship.”

Kazee has played a lot over the past two seasons as Neal also was lost in 2018 to a season-ending knee injury in the season opener.

Kazee, who’s in the final year of his rookie contract, has 10 interceptions since 2018, which is tied for the most in the league.

The Falcons are set to start rookie A.J. Terrell, who played at Clemson and Westlake High, at left cornerback. He was selected with the 16th overall pick in the draft.

“I’m real excited just in general, just to see our first-rounder go out there in A.J. and play and perform (under) the bright lights,” Morris said.

With no exhibition games because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Falcons tried to get Terrell ready for the NFL by having him compete in practice against wide receivers Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage.

“We’ve got really good people to test those guys in practice,” Morris said. “We’ve got really good people there from a walk-through standpoint and just a communication aspect off the field.”

The Falcons know that Seattle will try to test Terrell early. But they believe Jones, et al., helped Terrell get ready for Seattle’s receivers.

“Usually you go through some growing pains with them, and we probably still will,” Morris said. “But I’m really excited to know that he went out there and competed with those guys. He did a good job against them.”

The Falcons are counting on Isaiah Oliver to hold up at right cornerback.

“Oliver is coming off the second half that he had last year, getting ready to perform again and go out there and really play well for us this year,” Morris said. “He’s sort of stepped into a leadership role. He’s got leadership qualities. He’s another person who understands the defense and knows exactly what we want to do. He brings all of that to the game.”

Darqueze Dennard, who played inside at nickel back some in training camp, Kendall Sheffield and Blidi Wreh-Wilson are the key backups at cornerback. Sheffield missed the open portion of practice Wednesday and was seen in a walking boot on his left foot Tuesday.

“Queze is playing really fast for us, playing really hard for us,” Morris said. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Blidi and the success he had playing for us down the stretch, playing really hard and well for us as well.”

Dennard, who’s headed into his seventh NFL season, was signed as a free agent from the Bengals.

“He’s like another coach on the field,” Morris said. “It was one heck of an acquisition for us.”

The front of the Falcons defense will be led by defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler.

Jarrett had a career-high 7.5 sacks last season. Fowler, who signed in free agency, had a career-high 11.5 sacks last season with the Rams.

“We’re excited to see Grady,” Morris said. “We’re excited to see the new people we added to the team.”

The Falcons are hoping that Jarrett, Fowler and Takk McKinley can generate a pass rush with tighter coverage in the secondary.

“Takk went home and got into the best shape he could get into,” Morris said. “He was able to come back here with a renewed spirit, with some motivation and a little bit of a chip on his shoulder.”

McKinley’s $10.3 million fifth-year option was declined by the team.

“He’s done a nice job of fitting in as a teammate,” Morris said. “To watch those two guys be on the field together is pretty exciting. They bring speed. They bring juice. They bring energy and I think those guys are starting to form a connection.”


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