Raheem Morris shares his master plan for the Falcons’ 2020 defense

Wide receivers coach Raheem Morris talks about his move to defense and what he plans to address this season. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

By being clear, direct and to the point, Falcons defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, a fast-talking New Jersey native, is widely considered the architect of the stunning turnaround of the team’s defense last season.

After being moved over from coaching wide receivers to the defense – without the title – the unit’s play improved and helped pave the way to the 6-2 second-half record.

After the season, Morris was officially promoted Dec. 27 with the goal of continuing that level of play into the 2020 season without a major overhaul in personnel.

Morris plans to lean on his time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a member of Jon Gruden’s staff (2002-05, 2007-08) and eventually as their head coach (2009-11).

“We had the same defensive coordinator in Monte Kiffin for years,” Morris said. “That identity never changed. Never went away. Even after he was gone, it remained the same.”

Some of the coaches, such as Rod Marinelli, Mike Tomlin, Gus Bradley, Todd Wash and Joe Barry, changed. But the identity did not. The Bucs’ defense stayed true to the cover-2 zone principles.

“We had a familiar set of identities and set of rules,” Morris said.

Morris essentially replicate that tone, but with the Falcons’ cover-3 zone principles that coach Dan Quinn brought with him from Seattle. Earlier in the season they tried to play with mixed fronts and morph back-and-forth from 4-3 to 3-4 principles with no success.

Bucs coach Bruce Arians said the Falcons’ turnaround could be traced to them playing “less man-to-man. More zone coverage.” He noted that pass was strong because of a combination of coverage and pass rush.

The clarity helped the players to play faster and that identity of purpose is what Morris plans to carry into 2020.

“A lot of things have happened like that here,” Morris said. “Going from what Quinn started with Richard Smith, myself, going away from that to Jerome Henderson, then going to Jeff Ulbrich, a lot of those common faces are still here. The common thoughts. The common beliefs.”

Gruden, who’s now the highly paid head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, always told Morris that during the offseason period of reflection and preparation that the team is either “getting better or worst.”

The key is to keep moving forward and grow.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence from that identity,” Morris said. “I got a lot of confidence that we’ll be able to communicate those in details to our players and get those guys to play fast and how we need to get it done.”

What are the characteristics of that identity on all three levels, along the line, the linebackers and in the secondary?

“To have a successful defense, it starts with affecting the quarterback,” Morris said. “Whatever that means. A lot of people, when you say affect the quarterback, they automatically go right to sacks. You’ve got to get him off the spot.

“You got to get him with disguises. You have to get those guys to think a little bit. Get those guys out of their comfort zone. Outside of their box. So, all of that, part of that identity will have to show up.”

The Falcons’ identity last season was one of Jekyll and Hyde. Over the first eight games, they were abysmal. Over the last eight games, with Morris in charge, they were a top-10 elite unit in several key categories.

They went from the bottom of the league to top ten in takeaways (32nd to tied for second), sacks (32nd to tied for 10th), passes defenses (31st to tied for fourth), opponent drive-scoring efficiency (32nd to ninth) and opponent red-zone efficiency (31st to sixth).

“Those things happened and we were able to do that,” Morris said. “We have to go out and try to duplicate that again. We have to go out and try to re-establish that. We have to re-establish that faster. We have to get that going. We have to find a way to get those things done.”

It must be noted that the Falcons faced only one elite quarterback in New Orleans’ Drew Brees and went 1-1 against him over that eight-game stretch.

They were 5-1 against less-than-elite quarterbacks in Jimmy Garoppolo, Gardner Minshew, Kyle Allen (twice), and Jameis Winston (twice).

Winston beat the Falcons in Atlanta when the offensive line collapsed and allowed six sacks and 14 quarterback hits. He gifted the Falcons the regular-season finale with his 30th interception of the season that Deion Jones returned for a walk-off touchdown on the first play of overtime.

Morris didn’t make a slew of personnel moves. While the Falcons may lose linebacker De’Vondre Campbell in free agency, the unit will not undergo a major offseason makeover.

“It’s hard to say that personnel was the issue,” Morris said. “I had an eight-game stint with my guys on defense. In eight games we were able to produce a pass rush, we were able to do some great things with some good people.”

Morris is enjoying the offseason preparation period full of X’s and O’s, personnel and draft-preparation meetings.

“You have to remember that the new people coming in won’t be the savior,” Morris said. “They are coming in to be a part of it. Those people are coming in to join on what we want to do and build on who we want to be.”

Morris will lean on new defensive backs coach Joe Whitt Jr. and defensive end coach Tosh Lupoi to help players improve and function within the schemes.

Whitt, who was on Bobby Petrino’s Falcons staff in 2007, went on to coach 11 seasons with the Green Bay Packers (2008-18) before spending a season in Cleveland.

He has a ring from the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV victory over the Steelers.

He coached the great Charles Woodson and helped develop undrafted free agents Tramon Williams and Sam Shields into Pro Bowl players. He has to continue to develop young cornerbacks Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield with the Falcons.

“Working with Wood and those guys early on, they let me know that great players want to be coached,” Whitt said.

Lupoi will work closely with Jess Simpson to help the line stop the run and generate a pass rush.

“His presentation is one of his major strengths,” Morris said. “He’s going to be able to present to (defensive end) Takk (McKinley) and those guys, up front about how we want to get after the quarterback.”

Morris looks forward to putting his unit together, one that he hopes will play at a consistently high level.

“I’ve been fortunate to have some offensive experiences and defensive experiences on both sides of the ball,” Morris said. “Having different titles and different hats. It’s been an ongoing joke in the office that my name plate just keeps growing.

“I’ve embraced it. I’ve enjoyed it.”

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