Pass-rusher Charles Harris a bright spot on bleak Falcons defense

Credit: AP Photo/Tom Lynn

Credit: AP Photo/Tom Lynn

One of the few bright spots for the Falcons in their past two games has been the play of defensive end Charles Harris.

The former first-round pick missed the first two games of the season with an ankle injury, but has played strong in the past two games, against the Bears and the Packers.

“We are hopeful that we are going to keep seeing this improvement from him,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.

Harris played 32 defensive snaps (39%) against the Bears. He had two tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss and two quarterback hits. Against the Packers, he played 27 snaps (43%) and had two tackles, a sack for a loss of 12 yards, a tackle for a loss and one quarterback hit.

The Falcons are hoping that Harris, Dante Fowler and Takk McKinley can turn into three-man rotation to harass and sack quarterbacks at a much higher rate. All have been injured, but are getting healthier.

“We are all excited to see Fowler, Harris, McKinley and Grady (Jarrett). Let’s get that whole group going,” Quinn said. “Charles is really tough. He’s got strong hands. He’s been a good addition for us so far.”

Harris was selected by the Miami Dolphins in the first round (22nd overall) of the 2017 NFL draft, four picks ahead of McKinley. He played 41 games for the Dolphins, but recorded only 3.5 sacks.

He was drafted to play in one system, but when a new coaching staff was hired, he no longer fit. In the Falcons' one-gap attack, the team is hoping that Harris can use his speed and flourish.

The Falcons sent the Dolphins a seventh-round pick for Harris.

“It’s been awesome to be able to get back out there on the field with the guys after putting a lot of work in with them, all through training camp and stuff like that,” Harris said. “It feels great to get back out there, get in a rhythm and get in a groove with everyone and being able to contribute to the team.”

Harris is working well with his new teammates along the defensive line.

“No doubt, we have great (defensive) tackles, great ends on the other side of me who can create a lot of pressure,” Harris said. “It just makes to where everybody has a chance to get a sack and cause pressure on the quarterback. I think that is what is going to be happening over these last two weeks and what is going to carry over as far as the rest of the season.”

The Falcons have registered only seven sacks, with Jarrett leading the way with 2.5. Behind Harris' two, Fowler and McKinley have one each and linebacker Deion Jones has a half sack.

“I think the (defensive coordinator) and our (defensive line) coach are doing a great job of getting us more pass-rush opportunities,” Harris said. “That makes it a lot less clear-cut. There is a lot less thinking. A lot more just going. I think that’s what any linemen would like to have, just to play aggressively. I think that is something that this scheme helps to my benefit.”

The Falcons are preparing for a game Sunday against a rejuvenated Teddy Bridgewater, who’s a starter again in the NFL with the Panthers.

“They are still going to try to run the ball, run the ball hard,” Harris said. “But Teddy is a good (double threat) quarterback. He can use his legs, use his arms. I think we have to do a great job of making sure we keep him in the pocket.”

The Panthers lost to the Raiders and Buccaneers, but have victories over the Chargers and Cardinals.

“We have to keep applying pressure to him, get some quarterback hits on him,” Harris said. “Challenge him mentally, physically and just assault him. That’s something that we are definitely going to focus on this game coming up with the Panthers and of course just shutting down the run.”

With McKinley (groin) returning to practice Wednesday, and Fowler saying he’s nearly 100% recovered from his ankle injury, Harris is getting more comfortable with his new teammates.

“That’s something that we looked at in camp, in terms of our comfortability with each other,” Harris said. “As far as application to game play, practice you can kind of simulate what is going to happen, then you slow it down a little bit. But then when you’re out there on the field, you have to know that your guy next to you understands what you understand. I think that’s probably the next step with our (defensive) line, with our pass rush.”

The numbers have been bleak, and the defense has blown two double-digit fourth-quarter leads, but the play of Harris has given the unit some hope, as strong safety Keanu Neal (hamstring) and free safety Ricardo Allen (elbow) also returned to practice.

“He’s really done a nice job of filling in, coming to rush the passer,” defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said. “He’s given us great energy.”

Harris stepped in for the Falcons, who needed something good to happen.

“It certainly nice to have him in there and know that you’ve got a veteran that has played a little football in this league,” Morris said.

Falcons' next four games

Panthers at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11

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

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

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

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