FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – In his first start at free safety, Damontae Kazee got beat on a seam route and Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton made him pay him for it. The next play resulted in a 15-yard touchdown pass from Dalton to Tyler Eifert.
Kazee could do two things at this point: He could dwell on the mistake or he could go make a play.
Trailing by a point with 4:52 to play in the third quarter of that same game against the Bengals, Kazee picked off Dalton on the Falcons’ 23-yard line. The Falcons’ offense scored a touchdown on the next drive, giving Atlanta the lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
It’s rare for a pro athlete to play a perfect game and oftentimes it’s how they react after a mistake that shows the true identity of a player. And if there’s one positive throughout all of injuries the Falcons’ defense has endured in 2018, it’s been the development of Kazee, a fifth-round draft pick out of San Diego State in 2017.
His physicality and ball-hawking abilities made Falcons head coach Dan Quinn believe he could be featured at several positions in his defense.
Kazee turned out to be the surprising star of Atlanta’s preseason, leaving the question: How could the Falcons manage to get this guy on the field with bonafide starters already in place in the secondary?
Although we won’t ever know how much Kazee would have played had Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen stayed healthy, we do know this much – Kazee has blossomed into a player the Falcons defense needs on the field.
Through 12 games, Kazee has 61 tackles and six interceptions.
Kazee’s journey to a starter in the league has been anything but the norm. Most of the time when a player is drafted he’s immediately plugged into the position he’s been playing his entire career.
This wasn’t the case for Kazee. Before the NFL, Kazee had experience playing two positions: Cornerback and wide receiver.
He happens to credit his time playing receiver as the reason for his excellent ball skills. His 17 interceptions set a school record and he was twice named the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year.
At 5-foot-10, 184 pounds coming out of college and a 4.54-second 40-yard dash time, Kazee didn’t necessarily possess the size and speed needed to be a No. 1 corner in the NFL.
But what he did have was a knack for the ball.
“We didn’t know to that spot what it would be, but we did know that he was one tough competitive guy and he wouldn’t back off of it,” Quinn said. “That part we knew we needed to add just somehow, some way to keep that part going. We’d find a space for him once we got him into the building. So, he has not disappointed in that way at all.”
That he hasn’t.
After Neal went down in Week 1, the Falcons moved Allen over to strong safety. This would mean it was Kazee’s time to start at free safety.
As Kazee was learning the ropes of what it takes to be a starter at this position, he had Allen playing right by side him helping him every step of the way. For the past three seasons, Allen has assumed the “quarterback” role on defense, making sure everyone was lined up in the right positions and on the same page.
All Kazee had to do was worry about his assignments and making sure he did his job.
That all changed when Allen tore his Achilles in the final minutes of Atlanta’s Week 3 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
With just two games under his belt starting at free safety, Kazee would have to assume a leadership role with Allen and linebacker Deion Jones – the team’s two best communicators on defense – on the sidelines.
And he’s done just that.
“I would say, No. 1, he has definitely improved from a communication side, something to be forced in when you’re there full-time, that part of his game is now so much further along than he had,” Quinn said. “That is the good and bad byproduct of being thrust in is to say now it’s on you to make the calls, make the alerts, so that part for sure has been better.”
Not only has he been vitally important in terms of the way he’s assumed the communication role, his biggest impact has been the plays he’s made.
Kazee currently ranks second in the league in interceptions.
Sure, Kazee has been exceptional at taking the ball away, but that’s not what he hangs his hat on as a player – that’s just one part of it.
“My aggressiveness … [my] willing to make a play at the end of the day,” Kazee said of what he believes is his best attribute. “Every play, I go 99 percent, I don’t care what it is.”
His teammates feed off that energy he brings.
“Everything he does, I love it,” cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “The energy, the physicality he brings every week. He’s a great player and he’s going to be good for a long time.”
Kazee was thrusted into a situation that could make or break him as a player in his second year. And he’s taken that challenge and attacked it and this experience will only make him a better player for years to come.
“He’s learning how to play disciplined football, he’s learning to be accountable,” defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel said of Kazee. “Leaders are not always vocal, but he does it by his actions. He continues to grow every week. He’s not getting it from a playbook now, he’s living it. He’s having to breathe it for 60 minutes during the game. There’s a lot of experience being gained there.”