Raheem Morris turned up the heat on Falcons defense

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Interim coach Raheem Morris discusses how he plans to get the team moving in a winning direction.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

In his attempt to pull the team together, Falcons coach Raheem Morris conducted meetings this week with leaders on offense and defense.

The defense, which Morris was coordinating, is one of the worst units in the NFL, statistically. In the first game in the post-Dan Quinn era, the defense will be challenged by veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings (1-4) at 1 p.m. Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Morris wants to see the defense return to some basics. He wants to see them running and hitting, getting all 11 players to the ball. He met with what he call the Falcons' “run-and-hit” leaders.

“We have got to bring back running, hitting,” Morris said. “We’ve got to bring back getting to the ball, getting the ball out for these guys. I wanted to give them great examples of when they did it and when they did not. I wanted to make that really clear so there was no confusion on how we wanted to get this thing done, on how we want to turn the program around.”

Free safety Ricardo Allen, middle linebacker Deion Jones, strongside linebacker Foye Oluokun, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and strong safety Keanu Neal were at “run-and-hit” meeting.

“I wanted to get those guys in the same room, so that they knew what the message was and spread it to their comrades to go out there to run and hit,” Morris said.

The Falcons' defense ranks 31st of 32 teams in yards allowed (446 per game), 31st in passing yards allowed (335.8) and 30th in points allowed (32.2). The run defense is giving up 110.2 yards per game, which is 14th.

Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (groin), who had a big game against the Falcons last season, was declared out by the team Friday.

Cook, the NFL’s leading rusher in yards (489) and touchdowns (seven), suffered a groin injury against Seattle on Sunday.

He rushed 21 times for 111 yards and two touchdowns as the Vikings beat the Falcons 28-12 in the 2019 season opener. He will be replaced in the lineup by Alexander Mattison, who rushed for career highs of 20 carries and 112 yards in a tough 27-26 loss to the Seahawks.

“Minnesota is going to be a fantastic test for us defensively, it’s a game that we struggled in last year, especially with stopping the run,” defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “It’s going to be an opportunity for us to show that we are a good run-stopping defense.”

If the Falcons can stop the run, the second order of business is to generate a pass rush.

“I’m excited about giving (defensive end) Dante (Fowler) more opportunities,” Ulbrich said. “All of these guys need more opportunities to rush the passer. Getting into more favorable second downs, third-and-longs and let those guys eat a little bit more.”

Ulbrich and Morris will continue their shared-play calling operation. Ulbrich calls first and second down and Morris will call third downs.

“I think the pass rush can improve, but at the same time we’ve got to give them an opportunity to rush better by playing the early downs better,” Ulbrich said.

The Falcons would like to see the defense revitalized. They plan to play more players with hopes of increasing competition.

“Our good players have to play at a higher level,” Ulbrich said. "We have to coach better. I think we’ve under-performed up until this point. Obviously, we have.

“We are capable of being so much better. ... No one is bailing us out of this thing.”

With the firing of Quinn on Sunday, Morris has placed the ball at the players' feet.

“The intensity has been ramped up a little bit more,” Fowler said. “Raheem is kind of making us a little bit uncomfortable.”

Fowler was asked to explain what he meant by “uncomfortable.”

“Just being a coach,” Fowler said. “Coaching us up. Kind of getting in our (faces) a little bit about bringing the intensity to practice. Firing us up. Getting us mad at him because we don’t have an opponent during the week, so he makes us take it out on him so on Sunday we’ll be ready to take it out on them guys and will be mentally and physically ready.”

The Falcons have had coverage issues in the secondary. They have given up 29 plays of 20 yards or more, including 27 pass plays.

“(Rookie cornerback) A.J. (Terrell) has been a very bright spot,” Ulbrich said. “I thought for a corner to come into this league and play right away is not easy. He’s been up to the challenge. He’s finding improvement every week.”

Cornerback Kendall Sheffield (foot) is getting healthier, while Isaiah Oliver continues to struggle in coverage. Darqueze Dennard, who’s working his way back from a hamstring injury, is on injured reserve, but could return as early as next week.

“He finds ways to get incrementally better every single day in this building,” Ulbrich insisted of Oliver. "I just can’t wait for that to be reflected on Sundays.

“I think you saw glimpses of it last year as the year ended. His confidence grew as his technique got better, his play improved. We have to get back on that track for him and he will because of his commitment to this process is in working.”

The Vikings have the talented Adam Thielen and rookie sensation Justin Jefferson at wide receiver. Jefferson has nine plays of 20 yards or more, including a 71-yard touchdown against Tennessee on Sept. 27.

“You’ve got the young buck from LSU, when you watch him on film you can tell he’s a young dude, but he has a lot of savvy moves,” Allen said. “He has kind of a veteran swag to him already. He can play.”

Falcons' next four games

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Falcons at Vikings at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18al trial

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

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