The Falcons were projected to compete for the Super Bowl LIII title in the 2018 season, but injuries robbed the team of key players on defense.
The unit failed to meet expectations, in part, because of injuries to strong safety Keanu Neal (missed 15 games), linebacker Deion Jones (10 games), free safety Ricardo Allen (13 games), defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (two games) and defensive end Takkarist McKinley (one game).
The reserves were not as talented, and the remaining starters did not step forward to pick up the slack.
The purge has started, as the Falcons moved on from starting right cornerback Robert Alford, nickel back Brian Poole and defensive end Brooks Reed. The team reportedly wants Poole back at a lower price, but he’ll likely get a substantially better offer on the open market.
Also, defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel was terminated at the end of the season.
Here’s the ninth installment of our unit-by-unit review of the 2018 team. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the special-teams units. Today, the safeties.
Who: Damontae Kazee, Sharrod Neasman, Jordan Richards, Ricardo Allen, Keith Tandy, Keanu Neal and Ryan Neal
Contract/free-agent situation: Jordan Richards is set to become a free agent.
What they did in season: The back end of the defense suffered a devastating blow when strong safety Keanu Neal was lost with a knee injury in the first game of the season. He provided the unit with its hard-hitting personality in his second season in the NFL and went to the Pro Bowl in 2017.
He was sorely missed.
The Falcons struggled to replace Neal even before free safety Ricardo Allen went down three games later with a ruptured Achilles against Cincinnati.
Second-year cornerback Damontae Kazee took over for Allen, while the Falcons ended up trying to play Jordan Richards against the run and Sharrod Neasman against the pass.
Kazee finished third on the team with 80 tackles. He also had seven interceptions, 10 passes defensed and one forced fumble.
Kazee’s seven interceptions were tied for the league lead with Miami’s Xavien Howard and Chicago’s Kyle Fuller.
Richards finished with 37 tackles and three passes defensed.
Neasman, who was with the team in 2016 and 2017, was out of football after he was cut by the Saints.
The Falcons had traded for Richards earlier in the season and elected not to sign Eric Reid, who was a free agent. They’d talked to him over the offseason, but didn’t re-kindle those talks when they were in need of a safety.
Reid, who knelt during the national anthem with former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, went on to sign with Carolina.
Neasman finished with 41 tackles and four pass breakups.
With the Falcons’ starting safeties out for most of the season, the defense sank from 22nd to 31st (13.2 percent) in the league in the Defense Adjusted Value of Average (DVOA) ratings by footballoutsiders.com. Only Tampa Bay (14.8 percent) was rated lower than Atlanta.
DVOA measures a team's efficiency by comparing success on every single play with a league average based on situation and opponent.
The Falcons’ ranked 26th in the league in defending the opponents No. 1 receiver, who averaged 71.5 yard per game. They ranked 11th against No. 2 wide receivers (44.5 yards per game), 28th against No. 3/other wide receivers (56 yards per game), 18th against tight ends (49.9 yards per game) and 28th against running backs (61.5 yards per game).
Snap counts: Kazee (990), Neasman (434), Richards (428), Allen (205), K. Neal (37), Tandy (2), R. Neal (0).
Monday: Defensive line
Friday: Special teams
Tuesday: Running backs
Wednesday: Offensive line
Thursday: Wide receivers
Friday: Tight ends