TAMPA, Fla. – Damontae Kazee began his second season with the Falcons (7-9) as a preseason standout fighting for a role, and he will likely end 2018 tied for the NFL lead in interceptions.
Kazee picked off his seventh pass of the season during the Falcons' 34-32 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11) on Sunday, showcasing the awareness and feel for the ball that has made him one of the true bright spots of the year.
The interception marked a turning point in the game for the Falcons, who had clawed back from a 17-0 deficit in the first half to cut the Buccaneers' lead to 20-17 late in the third quarter. Kazee's interception gave Atlanta the ball in Tampa Bay territory and four plays later, Tevin Coleman broke free for a 23-yard touchdown run and a 24-20 lead.
"A clear example of the fight of the team," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of Atlanta's comeback. "Being down 17-0, that part at the end of a regular season on the road being down 17-0, that's not a spot that you want to be in. But I think at the same time it says a lot about the men inside of the locker room."
An injury plagued year has forced the Falcons to bring many new faces inside of the locker room and force players into bigger and different roles in 2018. Perhaps no player responded better to that challenge than Kazee.
After finishing the preseason with 16 tackles, second-most on the team, two pass defenses, a tackle for a loss and an interception, it was clear the Falcons had something to work with in Kazee. With every starter returning in the secondary, however, it was unclear how great of a role Kazee would have in 2018.
That all changed when starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen went down with season-ending injuries in the first two weeks of the season. Kazee was no longer an intriguing option off the bench, he was an important starter.
He responded to that challenge every step of the way in 2018, finishing with 80 tackles, third-most among Falcons defenders, 10 pass defenses an NFL-leading seven interceptions and a tackle for a loss.
There were a couple of mishaps along the way like Kazee's poor angle on Nick Chubb's 92-yard touchdown run during the Falcons' loss to Cleveland, but that was more of the exception in 2018. Mostly, Kazee proved to be a smooth centerfielder and a sure tackler who was trustworthy as the last line of defense.
No longer a promising young player who made the most of his chances on the field, Kazee has shown the consistency and playmaking ability to warrant a sizeable role even when the Falcons are at full strength.
It's unclear whether that will be at the safety position he manned this season, however, as Quinn said Neal and Allen will "definitely" be the starters when they return to full health. Quinn has said the nickel corner spot is something Kazee could play in the future.
A fifth-round draft pick in 2017, Kazee was a pure ballhawk in college, recording 17 interceptions while at San Diego State, 15 of which came during his final two seasons. In his first season as a starter for Atlanta, Kazee accounted for seven of the Falcons' 19 takeaways.
Entering the season it didn't seem likely Kazee would be thrust into a full-time role for the Falcons, despite his strong showing in exhibition games. Injuries forced him into action and he never looked back. Kazee did everything the Falcons needed him to do in 2018.
"He's certainly somebody that has indicated that he has the ability to take the ball and make plays," Quinn said. "So we're encouraged about the season that he his building and the experience that he has gained."
The Falcons face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida for the last game of the 2018 season. Get your inside look here.