Falcons’ defense ready to move forward under Raheem Morris

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Falcons safety Ricardo Allen provides an update on his shoulder and talks about the team's changes to the defense's roster ahead of the 2020 season. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

Last year during the offseason, with three key starters returning from injury and coach Dan Quinn getting ready to call the plays, there was a great deal of optimism for the Falcons defense.

The sky was the limit.

Being a top-10 defense and joining the elite units in the NFL was openly discussed during OTAs and minicamps.

Once the season started, things didn’t go according to plan, as the defense faltered miserably. Players looked confused and disjointed at times, and that was the main reason why the team lost seven of its first eight games.

“At first, we were just too amped up,” Falcons safety Ricardo Allen said in a video conference call Thursday. “Everybody was too hyped.”

The unit did not stop the run against Minnesota in the opener, when they gave up 172 yard rushing and three touchdowns, and then they struggled with pass defense. At times, they left receivers wide open because of missed assignments that were at the root of a poor communications system.

“We were trying to play for something that was kind of cloudy. To me personally it was. We were pushing for greatness,” Allen said. “We were going for more statistical (things) than just getting out and playing like I know we could have played.”

The Falcons had to scrap the 3-4 alignments that had Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley standing up to mask whether they were rushers or linebackers. They had to stop playing man-to-man coverage and played more zone.

The pass rush and coverage improved dramatically after wide receivers coach Raheem Morris, a former head coach, took over the defense.

“The way the defense started to play in the second half of the season, I think it was just that everybody got comfortable,” Allen said.

Allen admitted that the unit struggled with some basics.

“Then just us being able to get in position,” Allen said. “When (Morris) moved over and him being able to help us as much as he could bringing it from the offensive side, telling us exactly what the offense was really trying to do to us because he was over there for so long.

“What exactly, the wide receivers and the quarterbacks were trying to do against us. That helped me out a lot and helped me take my game to another level also.”

Allen moved from free safety to strong safety after Keanu Neal went down with an Achilles injury in the third game of the season.

The Falcons, who play several high-powered offenses in Seattle, Green Bay, Kansas City, New Orleans (twice) and Tampa Bay (twice), don’t plan to just sit in simple zones after trying to improve the defense with several offseason moves, including the addition of secondary coach Joe Whitt.

“We are going to start over with how we did it, start talking about how we need to move forward,” Morris said. “I’ve had a chance to sit down with a lot of these coaches. They have some new ideas. Fresh start.”

It will be complex again, but the Falcons will count on the players to pick things up better during their virtual offseason made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s a marriage,” Whitt said. “Pass rush and coverage is pass defense. You can’t have one, really, without the other.”

So far, during the teaching portion of the offseason, the defenders are doing well.

“Coach Joe Whitt is brilliant,” Allen said. “He’s really bright.”

Whitt has been blunt and to the point with his players.

“I enjoy his honesty,” Allen said. “I’m not saying coaches are liars or anything like that, but coach Joe Whitt is one of the guys who goes above and beyond to make sure that he’s transparent, open and honest to all of his players.”

Allen is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

“The shoulder is doing really good right now,” Allen said. “I feel like I’m on schedule with where I’m supposed to be from the treatment standpoint. I’m ready to do a push-up, but they told me I can’t do a push-up yet.”

Allen approved of what the Falcons did over the offseason in signing defensive end Dante Fowler and in the draft, when they used four of the six picks on defenders.

“They were spicing up the defensive line, so that’s always a good thing,” Allen said. “Then we got us a good little young corner (A.J. Terrell) who can get it. A safety (Jaylinn Hawkins) who looks like, when I was watching him, looks like he can fit right in.

“Just like the style of play that all of us play, we all kind of play every position back there. To bring some more ballhawks and people who are trying to get the ball with intensity that all of the guys (we have) on defense. It was kind of cool to see.”

Allen has taken to the virtual offseason classes, but believes things may get more difficult for the younger players.

“This one right here would be a tough one,” Allen said. “My rookie year, I didn’t feel like I was ready in any way to be dropped into the league, and I was doing it from within a facility.”

With the teams away from the facility, the rookies may miss their minicamp and have to report directly to training camp.

“That’s not a good thing,” Allen said. “That would not be a good feeling for me, unless you feel like ... that’s just not a good feeling. It’s totally different when you go to the NFL, you feel like that freshmen in football all over again.”

The Falcons veteran will help to get the younger players up to speed. With no offseason, Terrell may not open the season as a starter.

“That’s going to have to be a big part of the game this year, teams will lean on their veterans to help the young ones,” Allen said. “You go to the coaches and the players that you believe in and try to get everybody up to speed because this is different.

“You get the one-on-one time, but some players are just not as good learning from sitting and listening.”

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