FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons have dealt with some significant shuffling within their secondary.
They aren't the only team to go through something like this, but the recent turnover in the starting lineup has been high.
It started with a bad injury run beginning in Week 6, when Casey Hayward suffered a shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve. Then came A.J. Terrell's hamstring injury in Week 7, which kept him out most of that game and all of the next one, with a return to practice still uncertain.
Dee Alford missed Week 7with a hamstring issues. Jaylinn Hawkins missed Week 8 with a concussion.
Then came some moves just before the NFL trade deadline, which sent reserve safety Dean Marlowe to Buffalo and imported Rashad Fenton from Kansas City.
All that's, you know, a lot for a roughly three-week span.
Safety Richie Grant has been a source of stability during that stretch, and believes the safeties and cornerbacks have done a solid job getting ready to play well together.
"When you get on the field and in that flow, it should just be natural," Grant said on Thursday. "The guys have really been working hard in the meeting rooms, watching film and discussing what we're going to do when we get out there on the practice field. Today was a great day. A great day. We have a lot of new faces out there, so that's encouraging."
Grant was also quick to remind that everyone's ready, that reserves work extremely hard preparing for duty even if they aren't called into action.
There has been a lot of shuffling, which prompts us to take a closer look at the current state of the secondary, who the Falcons have now and what can be expected from a personnel standpoint heading into Sunday's home game against quarterback Justin Herbert and the L.A. Chargers.
Grant's a lock at one safety spot. Jaylinn Hawkins could well man the other. He told reporters he expected to play and seems to be tracking that way after fully participating in Wednesday and Thursday practices.
That lessens the immediate impact of Marlowe's departure, especially with Erik Harris a talented, versatile, experienced player in reserve.
You've also got Isaiah Oliver as a permanent fixture in the slot, with Mike Ford as a reserve option. Alford, too.
Darren Hall has taken over for Hayward at one cornerback spot and should continue to do so. What if Terrell can't go, which is a real possibility with him remaining out of practice. Cornell Armstrong has largely stepped in for Terrell, though he has been heavily targeted – 17 times in two games, per PFF, with a solid 52.9 completion percentage and two passes defensed, with some explosive plays sprinkled in – since playing regularly.
And now on to Fenton. The fourth-year veteran started five games for Kansas City before missing two with a hamstring issue. He has 24 tackles and two passes defense but comes with starting and reserve experience.
So now comes to a question: How much can realistically be expected of Fenton in the short-term? Dean Pees addressed that in his Thursday press conference.
It's not a plug-and-play situation for new guys in the secondary. There's a feeling-out process involved as Fenton gets used to new surroundings.
"You have to find out where he came from, what they did while he was there, what similarities are there between what he did and what we do," Pees said, "so we can use in in certain ways because he already knows it."
Fenton has worked with Falcons secondary coach Jon Hoke before, during shared time together at South Carolina. Pees also knows his previous defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, well after working with him in the past.
I know [Spagnuolo] because he coached for me at Baltimore as my secondary coach," Pees said. "So there are similarities in some things. It's also nice to know someone like that who you can call and ask about [Fenton] and ask about his best attributes, what he does well and what he needs to work on and so forth.
"…You have to get him familiar with what we call things and we have to get familiar with what he can do, so you don't put him in a tough spot right now. You can't crash course the whole of what we've done in 15 weeks in two days. You also don't want to overload them, because then they're thinking about what they're supposed to be doing while the guy runs by him."
Taken over a longer stretch, however, adding Fenton could be of real benefit to the cornerback corps. There's no timetable for Hayward's return, meaning Fenton could provide quality injury protection or push Hall for a starting spot after Terrell comes back.
The overall secondary will look a bit different as the season progresses, as reinforcements settle into roles. How the perform together, both in meeting rooms and on the field, will be important to the overall pass defense.
Grant, for one, is confident in the teams approach and process, able to get everyone on the same page and playing well.
"We don't care who makes the play. We just want to make it," Grant said. "That's the mindset we all share. We're all playing for each other. It doesn't matter who's out there. We're going to play together and do what it takes to help the team win."
Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
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