INDIANAPOLIS – It's hard to argue that any position group made more improvement throughout the 2019 season than the Atlanta Falcons' secondary.
The unit surrendered numerous explosive plays during their 1-7 start to the season that appeared to be the result of miscommunications on the back end. The Falcons had just two interceptions and ranked last in the league with seven sacks, a statistic that is also partially a reflection of a team's coverage downfield.
All of that changed after the team's bye week in Week 9.
Atlanta picked off 10 passes during its final eight games, including the game-winning pick-six in the Falcons' season-finale win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The improved coverage also led to an uptick in sacks, as the Falcons took opposing quarterbacks down 21 times during their 6-2 finish.
Raheem Morris's switch from receivers coach to secondary coach was undoubtedly one catalyst for the change, and he was rewarded for his efforts by being named defensive coordinator after the season.
"When [Raheem] moved back over to defense and watching him coach on the field as he did, he does a great job with that," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "That's his world and it was so nice to see him back in that role and really working with the nuances of the position, because it can be a complicated coaching position, for sure. There are certain elements to a defensive back's footwork, their hips, their movement, their ability to anticipate zone, whatever it may be. I liked how they evolved."
However Morris was communicating with the members of the Falcons secondary, it clearly worked. And his teachings helped spark growth from some of the younger defensive backs on the roster.
In his first year as a starter, second-year cornerback Isaiah Oliver allowed five opposing quarterbacks to top a passer rating of 100 while targeting him in the Falcons' first eight games. After the bye week, only three quarterbacks reached that mark. Rookie Kendall Sheffield also showed improvement as Atlanta nickel corner as the year progress. Sheffield had an average Pro Football Focus coverage grade of 45.7 prior to the bye week. After the bye week, that average improved to 58.3. A small bump, sure, but any progression in a player's first season should be noted.
"I just think early on we were hitting and missing on elements of our secondary, and I loved the way that we got into a groove and showed not only whoever was skeptical but even for the players to gain more and more confidence," Dimitroff said. "That's a massively important thing. You know that you can get to the ball and you know that you can make plays on the ball.
"We had some young guys in there, of course. And those guys really thrived on their confidence. I thought their confidence level increased more and more, and that makes them more apt to maybe go for a ball high or low or make a big play. I think that's important."
Now more than ever NFL teams are seeking ways to create space and opportunities for their passing games. The Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs showcased just how quickly teams can capitalize on advantages downfield while mounting several comebacks in the playoffs en route to winning the Lombardi Trophy.
In much the same way that baseball teams firmly believe they can never have too many pitchers on their rosters, NFL teams are beginning to feel the same way about defensive backs. And given the crop of cornerbacks and versatile safeties in this year's NFL Draft, the Falcons view the event as an opportunity to continue to fortify their ranks.
"The reality is that there is a good number at all levels," Dimitroff said. "And that's where you know that there is a true strength at a position, I believe. Of course, you can pop someone early, if you're picking early in a round, or there's a number of guys that you might be picking in the second, third, fourth, fifth and on … It's a good position group, we're excited about that."
The Falcons have drafted a defensive back in each draft dating back to 2011. It's a position that can also play a key role on special teams, something Falcons head coach Dan Quinn prizes and looks for.
This year's draft includes a blend of elite top-tier talent like Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah and versatile Alabama safety Xavier McKinney. The draft also boasts exceptional depth in the secondary, giving teams plenty of options in how they may approach addressing that area of the field. CBS Sports currently has 11 cornerbacks and five safeties ranked among their top 80 draft prospects.
The current makeup of Atlanta's secondary is interesting. Aside from younger players like Oliver and Sheffield, who showed improvement but still need to take another step or two forward, the team has one proven starter in Desmond Trufant. Rookie corner Jordan Miller didn't see much action last season, and he will miss the first three games of the 2020 season due to a four-game suspension he received prior to the Falcons' season final in 2019. Veteran cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson has been a dependable backup for Atlanta, but he is a pending free agent and it remains to be seen what the team has in mind for him.
At safety, things are even more interesting. Keanu Neal’s Pro Bowl invite in 2017 was not a fluke, but back-to-back season-ending injuries cannot be ignored. Ricardo Allen has long been lauded as the defense's quarterback, and he offers a wide array of skills to fill various roles as needed. And Damontae Kazee again flourished after moving back to the center-field role in Atlanta's defense, showcasing his nose for the ball and ending the year with three interceptions.
The strides Atlanta made in the secondary last season is undoubtedly promising and offers some hope that things are trending in the right direction. Yet, given the way the game has progressed at both the college and NFL levels, good coverage has never been more important. With that in mind, the Falcons could once again look to add more speed or versatility in their pass coverage come this year's draft.
"First of all, the adage you can never have too many corners, that's important," Dimitroff said. "… We have to be versatile. We have to have numbers at corners and safeties, guys who can move."