Rash of injuries to test Falcons’ roster depth

Keanu Neal of the Falcons sits on the ground after suffering an apparent injury during the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on September 6, 2018 in Philadelphia.  (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Caption
Keanu Neal of the Falcons sits on the ground after suffering an apparent injury during the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on September 6, 2018 in Philadelphia. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Credit: Mitchell Leff

Credit: Mitchell Leff

The Falcons are getting ready to find out, over the course of the 2018 season, if they have quality depth along their roster.

Over the first two weeks of the season, the Falcons lost four starters – two with season-ending injuries.

“You don’t know where you are (from) a depth standpoint until you need it,” said Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who is the co-team builder with general manager Thomas Dimitroff, but has final control over the 53-man roster. “You have a good sense, that’s why you are always digging into where are we at on the back of this roster.”

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Before the rash of injuries, the Falcons’ roster widely was considered one of the best in the league, full with veteran and young talent.

But three of the injured players were Pro Bowl players — running back Devonta Freeman, middle linebacker Deion Jones and strong safety Keanu Neal. Guard Andy Levitre, who's started 143 games in the league, was placed on injured reserve Tuesday.

“Often times when a guy gets the opportunity when he’s been in the system, you’re really thinking they’ll have a good chance to succeed,” Quinn said. “You think of guys like (Damontae) Kazee. A guy like Duke (Riley), who’s grown up in the system. And I think of (Wes) Schweitzer, who’s had plenty of experience in our system where they are really ready to go.”

Kazee will step into the secondary at free safety, while Ricardo Allen will move to strong safety. Riley started in place of Jones against Carolina and Schweitzer, who started last season, came in for Levitre against Carolina.

And Tevin Coleman, who was in a time-share with Freeman, took over at running back.

The open roster spots had to be filled.

Running back Brian Hill, safety Keith Tandy, defensive end Steven Means and offensive guard Zac Kerin were added to replace the players that were moved to the injured reserve list.

The trade for strong safety Jordan Richards on Aug. 31 with New England looks like a strong move. He had to play when Kazee was ejected against the Panthers.

“How quickly we add those guys and get them up to speed (is key),” Quinn said. “Guys like Jordan, who has plenty of experience playing man-to-man and playing down in the box. There is still learning that goes on.”

The Falcons have enjoyed remarkably good injury health over Quinn's first three seasons. They ranked second-, sixth- and second-best in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Games Lost metric, which accounts for the role of the players who miss games and includes those who take the field with reported injuries.

With defensive end Takk McKinley (groin) and Derrick Shelby (groin) out, the Falcons will reach down the roster some more against the Saints. Veteran Brooks Reed and Means will see substantial time against the Saints.

  

“I’ve been most impressed by the guys that we’ve added,” Quinn said. “Rock-solid guys. Jordan being one and (Steven) Means being another that have really showed the traits that we’ve like. Now, it’s up to us as coaches to see how quickly we can get them up to speed so they can contribute.”

Means said he’s ready to go, if needed.

“I’ve just been watching tape and going through calls in my head,” Means said. “I look at certain clips to see how I’m supposed to line up in all of the different type of formations.”

Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel looks at the roster juggling as a challenged.

“I don’t see it as doomsday,” Manuel said. “I was good with it. The coaches, we were built for this part of it. The challenge comes to this: We are now in training camp with some of these guys.

“What I mean by that is, now we have to get back to the details. Before you had guys who’d been here from Year 1 and Year 2, now you have to get back to the details and you’ve got to get back to teaching.”

Manuel has asked his assistant coaches to be patient, but the reality is that the schedule is not going to be suspended until the coaches can get the replacements ready.

“We have to come out here and figure out how to win these games and play great defense,” Manuel said.

With Neal and Jones, the Falcons appeared set to become a shutdown defense and one of the elite units in the league. While the Falcons like the replacements, the defense likely will have to live off of creating turnovers.

Against the Panthers, the Falcons had one interception, but dropped three potential interceptions.

“The turnovers came alive, but we have to be better in the red zone,” Manuel said. “You go from understanding that now we are getting them to the third downs, now, we have to win those third downs.”

Manuel noticed when cornerback Desmond Trufant started doing push-ups after dropping an interception against Panthers.

“The way that the ball is coming alive for us, we have to capitalize on it,” Manuel said. “You have to expect it. Expect that you are going to catch. Expect that he’s going to throw it. We expect that you are going to make it, so go ahead and make it.”

The offense hasn’t been hit as hard. Schweitzer started 18 games last season at right guard.

“Wes did a heck of a job,” Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. “(Kawann) Short is a heck of a player for Carolina. That was no small task that he had stepping in the way that he did. I thought he did a nice job.”

Schweizter will no move in at left guard.

“Moving forward, Wes got a lot of experience last season,” Sarkisian said. “You start 18 games in this league, that goes a long way. I think he fits right back in there.”

You don’t know how good your depth is until you need it.

Caption
Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian talks about the team finally getting into the end zone from inside the red zone in the home opener against Carolina. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter)

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