In absence of Neal, Richards gets expanded role in secondary

As the Falcons attempt to replace strong safety Keanu Neal, Jordan Richards figures prominently in their plans.

The Falcons were looking for backup safety help when they made the trade with the Patriots to land Richards, a former second-round draft pick, on Aug. 31.

With Neal out for the season after knee surgery, the traditional strong safety Richards will help to fill his run-stuffing role when the Falcons (1-1) face the Saints (1-1) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“We think we are a lot closer to that than we were,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of playing Richards near to line of scrimmage. “(There) will still be some things we need to work through on the job and split some of it. By and large, we feel much more comfortable where he’s at with his preparation to play him down in the box. That’s where we are going to try and feature him.”

After Damontae Kazee was ejected early in the second quarter in Sunday’s win over the Panthers, Richards went in at strong safety and Ricardo Allen moved back to free safety.

Richards, 25, finished with four tackles and played 53 of 67 defensive snaps (71 percent).

“He went out there to do what you expect from a guy who’s only been here two weeks,” defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel said. “He gave us his best effort and he’s going to continue to get better.”

The Falcons like Richards in the box because he’s 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds. Allen is 5-9 and 186 pounds and Kazee is 5-11, 174 pounds.

Richards’ bigger frame will allow him to use his hitting ability.

“I thought Jordan Richards did a nice job of stepping up,” Quinn said. “He's really put in the time and the effort over the last 10 days to make sure he would be really accountable. As you're getting to know him, he's a really squared away, sharp dude who wants to get it right.”

Richards was drafted 64th overall by the Patriots in the 2015 NFL draft. He played at Stanford and was an All-Pac 12 selection as a senior.

Most draft experts had him projected to go in the fourth or fifth round because he had a slow 40-yard dash time of 4.59 seconds.

Richards wasn’t able to crack the starting lineup in New England on a regular basis, but he developed into a core special teams player and played some hybrid linebacker/safety close to the line of scrimmage in 2017.

He was happy about the trade.

“You are always blessed to be able to play football,” Richards said. “That means when I got traded it was a new opportunity here in Atlanta. I’m excited to be here. I’m just trying to work hard and contribute to the team’s success.”

Richards, who was inactive for Super Bowl LI against the Falcons but played in Super Bowl LII against the Eagles last year, remembers his time in New England fondly.

“I have no complaints or regrets about my time there,” Richards said. “I’m excited to finish here, play well and play strong.”

The other defensive backs have helped Richards get up to speed.

“You are always trying to learn as quickly as possible,” Richards said. “Be ready for anything. Any time that you are new to a team you want to try to help the team and contribute as quickly as possible.”

Playing near the line of scrimmage is fine with Richards.

“As long as I have a role in the defense,” Richards said. “I’m just trying to find ways to be on the field. Defense or special teams any way that I can be out there.”

Richards has played in 41 regular-season games with seven starts and has 40 total tackles, three passes defensed, two forced fumbles and 10 special teams tackles. He has also played in five playoff games and has registered five total tackles and one special teams tackle.

Last season, Richards played in all 16 games with five starts and had 22 tackles, once forced fumble, one pass defensed and five special teams tackles.

“Jordan we didn't think he would play as much as he did after Kazee had his issue,” Quinn said. “So for him -- I think he ended up with over 30 plays (actually 53), which we were not expecting. That's the contingency plan as it goes.

“We're going to try to feature him at strong safety spot; we weren't always able to do that in (the Panthers’) game. Hopefully moving forward we'll be able to do more of that.”