Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel talks about the team's 31st-ranked scoring defense. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter)

Damontae Kazee starting to slide into free-safety mode 

Kazee, who’s taking over for Ricardo Allen, is ready to see what Tampa Bay (2-2) throws at him when the Falcons (1-4) play the Bucs in a NFC South game at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

“I’m not pleased yet,” Kazee said. “There are still some things that I need to work on. At the end of the day, it’s not about me or my stats. It’s about trying to the win.”

In the 41-17 loss to the Steelers, Kazee was one of the few bright spots. He clearly was a player making strides as the Falcons are trying to replace four starters on defense. 

Kazee, who played cornerback in college at San Diego State, finished with six tackles, an interception, a pass breakup and a forced fumble while patrolling the deep middle of the defense. 

On the 28-yard check-down pass that the Falcons missed four tackles on, Kazee stopped the play down the field. 

With the Steelers trying to score a touchdown at the end of the first half, it was Kazee who leaped over Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown and muscled the ball away from him for an interception.

In the third quarter, when the Steelers tossed a simple screen pass that should have stopped for a short gain, Kazee dropped James Conner to finish the play.

“Kazee is doing a good job when you take in all of the considerations and the factors that you had him at nickel and he’s going back to play free safety and the combination of he’s playing it full-time,” Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel said. “You are going to see his growing pains and you’re going to see his talent.”

Yeah, about those growing pains.

On the Steelers’ 47-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, Kazee should have moved over more quickly to help cornerback Robert Alford. He was supposed to stay deeper than the speedy Brown. 

“I just have to make that play,” Kazee said. “I have to get over the top at the end of the day. If it’s a running back, if he’s got the ball, I’ve got to get him down.”

Kazee caused a fumble in the red zone that would have helped the Falcons get off the field trailing just 13-10. But the ball squirted away from three Falcons and went out of bounds. On the next play, the Steelers scored a touchdown. 

“It’s me mainly. If I see the ball, I have to go get the ball full-speed,” Kazee said. “I’ve got to take my shot, get the tackle and get the ball out.”

Kazee isn’t used to covering so much ground. 

“I just have to condition myself,” Kazee said. “I have to learn how to run from sideline to sideline on every play. For my (cornerbacks), I have to stay on top. I have to help them. That’s what I have to make progress on that.” 

Despite the Brown play, Alford believes that Kazee is coming along.

“Kazee is doing good,” Alford said. “He’s coming along. He’s coming along well. He got a pick last week, and he got a pick that first week also. He’s doing good. The sky is the limit for him. All he needs to do is keep pushing and he’ll become great.”

While Kazee is trying to stabilize the free-safety spot, the revamped defense also is looking for Jordan Richards to come through at strong safety for Keanu Neal. They have De’Vondre Campbell and Duke Riley trying to take over Deion Jones’ roles at middle linebacker.

Deadrin Senat was the main beneficiary of playing snaps when defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (ankle) missed the Steelers game. 

But Kazee sees things coming together.

“It’s a work in progress,” Kazee said. “We still have to work to get there. We can be much better at the end of the day. We just have to keep working hard every day.”

The spirit on the defense it good, despite yielding 163 points, the most in the NFL.

“We can’t just lay low and sit here because we lost,” Kazee said. “We have to keep our heads high and keep working. We are going to get there.”

The defense hopes to make some strides against the Bucs. 

“It comes with trust now because there is a lot of us young guys starting now,” Kazee said. “They have to trust us. We have to be on top of everything. There are certain plays I’ve got to be on top. I’ve got to make that play. I have to be the last defender.”

The Falcons knew there would be some on-the-job-training with Kazee.

“He also played with real physicality and had better communication,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “I saw a jump take place with him.”

The plays Kazee makes can energized a defense.  

“I think you guys also see the ballhawk that’s also there with him, the energy that he brings to the team,” Quinn said. “We’re excited about where Kazee is headed. I feel like he’s just going to keep getting better the more opportunities that he gets.” 

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