If the Falcons are to return to the playoffs in a division with two other future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, they must be able to stop teams when it counts. They will only go as far as the defense enables them to. Led by Matt Ryan and his litany of weapons, the offense will score a lot of points, but the defense will decide just how successful they will be by creating stops and turnovers.
The first half of the 2019 season was abysmal for Atlanta’s defense. They gave up 380 yards and almost 30 points per game, recording only seven sacks. And their record reflected that performance, losing seven of their first eight games.
Whether it came from within or forced upon him, Dan Quinn effectively allowed Raheem Morris to help take over the defensive play-calling after the bye week. Formerly a defensive coordinator with the Buccaneers during the 2009 season, he was named head coach of the team after the firing of Jon Gruden. He went on to coach in Tampa Bay for three years until he was fired — some would say undeservedly — following the 2011 season. Morris went from defensive backs coach in Washington to the same position in Atlanta, where he was until 2016. Then for some peculiar reason, Quinn decided to make him the wide receivers coach until switching him back in the middle of last season.
Following the move, the last eight games showed dramatic improvements in comparison to the first eight. Seven of these eight games were played against top 20 offenses; better yet, five of those were offenses that finished top five in scoring. The Morris effect was apparent, surrendering only 320 yards and 17 points per contest while recording 21 sacks in that eight-game span. As a result of the defense’s improvement, the Falcons finished 6-2. Morris clearly showed the capability needed to earn the job in 2020.
After simplifying the defense following the bye week, Morris proved he could run a scheme that best suits the personnel afforded to him. Bruce Arians of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers indicated to the media the Falcons started playing more zone coverage moving away from man coverage. The money down (third down) saw vast improvements, going from worst to first before and after the bye week.
The most significant question mark during the Dan Quinn era has been the inability to generate a consistent pass rush. Morris highlights this as a key to developing a defensive identity. “To have a successful defense, you guys know, is affecting the quarterback, whatever that means,” Morris said, according to ESPN’s Vaughn McClure. “A lot of people, when you say affect the quarterback, they automatically go right to sacks. But you’ve got to get him off the spot. You’ve got to fool him with disguise. You’ve got to get those guys to think a little bit.”
Raheem Morris will have his hands full within the division, as well as a tough out of conference schedule. With the additions of A.J. Terrell and Dante Fowler, the Falcons will have the talent to compete. Returning players like Deion Jones, Grady Jarrett, and Keanu Neal will only give Morris more flexibility in his scheme and play calling. Because of that, we should see a defense that closer resembles the second half of the 2019 season rather than the first half.