Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Raheem Morris helped lead a midseason resurgence in 2019. The Falcons had a 6-2 finish following a 1-7 start after Morris was switched from coaching receivers to defensive backs. Now it’s up to the defense to carry that momentum into 2020, especially against quarterbacks Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Teddy Bridgewater in the NFC South.
Here’s a position-by-position look at whether the Falcons are better, worse or the same as the 2019 team on defense:
Additions: Dante Fowler Jr. (Rams), Charles Harris (trade, Dolphins), Marlon Davidson (second round/draft), Austin Edwards (undrafted), Sailosi Latu (undrafted), Hinwa Allieu (undrafted), Bryson Young (undrafted)
Better, worse or the same? Better.
Snaps played 2019: Fowler (844), Jarrett (765), Davison (532), McKinley (513), Bailey (488), Harris (397), Tuioti-Mariner (180), Cominsky (91), Senat (18), Larkin (6)
The Pro Bowler Jarrett, a run-stuffer and pass-rush demon, anchors the line. But Jarrett needs help. The Falcons hope they found it in pass-rusher Fowler, who had 11.5 sacks with the Rams last season, and the rookie Davison, who showed a high motor at Auburn. Against the run, envision Jarrett teaming with Davison inside with Bailey and Fowler or perhaps the rookie Davidson playing defensive end. Bailey and Davison don’t get enough credit for their ability to stuff the run.
The Falcons obviously have to generate more pressure than the 28 sacks they posted last season. The pass-rush foursome seems destined to be Jarrett and the second-rounder Davison inside, with Fowler and McKinley coming off the edges. Plus, the Falcons can rotate guys such as Means, Cominsky and possibly the newcomer Harris -- a former first-round pick -- to keep bodies fresh.
Losses: De’Vondre Campbell (Cardinals)
Better, worse or the same? Worse, at least initially.
Snaps played 2019: Jones (902), Oluokun (291), Bucannon (226), Reynolds (42)
Linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said he envisions Jones evolving into the best middle linebacker in the game. Jones has the speed to make plays sideline to sideline and keep up with division running backs such as Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara. Jones grew accustomed to having Campbell by his side, but now Oluokun is expected to be Jones’ primary tag team partner. Oluokun might have to fill that role of covering tight ends that Campbell played well.
Defensive end Fowler is likely to play the strongside 'backer role in the base defense on first down with Jones at middle linebacker and Oluokun as the weakside linebacker. The wild card in the linebacker equation might be the rookie Walker, who is expected to be a solid contributor but was not highly rated coming out of Fresno State.
Losses: Desmond Trufant (Lions)
Better, worse or the same? Better long term.
Snaps played 2019: Oliver (875), Sheffield (664), Wreh-Wilson (312), Miller (23)
Expect the Falcons to be in nickel close to 70% of the time, so that would mean having Sheffield, Oliver and the rookie Terrell all on the field at once. Sheffield, a speedster and elite athlete who could evolve into the No. 1 corner, is most likely to work inside in those packages, and opponents have tried to put their best receivers in the slot against the Falcons in the past.
In the base defense, the best two corners will be on the field, which likely would leave Sheffield playing outside, with Oliver and Terrell battling for the other spot. The relative inexperience of the trio means the Falcons should consider adding a veteran such as Logan Ryan or Aqib Talib, who both have ties to the Falcons' staff. Talib played for Morris in Tampa Bay; Ryan played at Rutgers when Falcons wide receivers coach Dave Brock coached at the school. The veteran Wreh-Wilson has the ability to contribute in spot duty, and Miller is a project who could provide depth after finishing the final three games of a four-game suspension. The emphasis for the entire group will be on creating more takeaways, as the Falcons had a minus-5 turnover ratio last season.
Losses: Kemal Ishmael (free agent), J.J. Wilcox (free agent), Johnathan Cyprien (free agent)
Better, worse or the same? Better.
Snaps played 2019: Allen (901), Kazee (761), Neal (152), Carter (101), Neasman (8)
This might be the most interesting dilemma facing the Falcons this season: How do you keep Allen, Neal and Kazee on the field at the same time? Allen is the defensive leader and like another coach on the field. Neal, coming off an Achilles tear after an ACL tear the season before, is a hard-hitting enforcer and Pro Bowl talent when healthy. And Kazee is the ball hawk with 10 interceptions in his past 29 games. The Falcons appear destined to use a three-safety look, perhaps with both Allen and Kazee down in the box and Kazee in the middle of the field. Neal could also play dime linebacker on occasion. Whatever the case, having three starting-caliber safeties is a good problem to have. The rookie Hawkins, listed as a strong safety, could be a surprise contributor despite not being highly regarded as a fourth-rounder.