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'We can take a head start': How Jerry Gray is helping the Falcons new defensive staff build off last season's foundation

The Falcons retained the tenured defensive assistant under head coach Raheem Morris. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Falcons defense took a giant leap last season from ranking in the bottom of the league in 2022 to being a top-15 unit in 2023.

The Falcons new defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake, who was introduced last week, admittedly didn't get a chance to watch much of Atlanta's 2023 season as it didn't cross over with his former squad, the Los Angeles Rams. He's getting that chance now to break down the film and get acquainted with the crux of what worked defensively last season.

That's pretty typical for a new coaching staff at this point in the offseason, but they also have a leg up on the process after retaining assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray, who was a part of the Falcons defensive resurgence.

Atlanta ranked top-10 in total offense yards allowed per play, total passing yards allowed and rushing touchdowns allowed in 2023, according to Pro Football Reference.

So far, Lake has taken advantage of Gray's familiarity with the squad's previous success.

"(Lake) understands what we did here," Gray said. "He isn't going to throw out everything (from last season) which is incredible. ... He asks us questions, 'What did you guys do well? Let's take a look at that. Let's see if we can add that.'"


In Gray's 27-year coaching NFL tenure, he said he's never seen a new coach come in and take into account what a previous staff had done. While the assistant coach can't say exactly what will be used from last season as training camp is a long way away with free agency, draft, OTAs and so on still to come, he said Lake has been mindful of what to keep intact and what to change.

"I've got tremendous respect for Jerry Gray, everything he's done in this league as a player and a coach," Lake said. "We're very, very excited that he can run that (secondary) room and continue to run that room and continue to build off what he's done here."

Several assistant coaches along with Gray were retained under Raheem Morris after the head coach filled the Falcons vacancy last month. Senior defensive assistant Dave Huxtable and Gray were the two on the defensive staff that stuck through the transition. Gray said the biggest advantage in that continuity is helping speed up the process that usually takes a whole offseason.

"We can take a head start," Gray said. "...Being able to come in and say, 'Hey Raheem, Jimmy: This is what these guys are really good at. Can we take that and add to it?'"

It also helps speed up the process when there's an abundance of coaching experience on the staff.

In keeping Gray, the Falcons have an assistant that carries decades of knowledge from multiple NFL teams. His coaching journey began in 1995, just a few years before Morris' did in 1998. Both Gray and Morris have put on the headset as a defensive play caller, which could prove useful for Lake who will step into the role for the first time in the professional ranks.

While working closely with the defensive backs room, Gray points to Jessie Bates III as the prototype for Atlanta's 2024 defense. Bates took a huge step last season, earning his first Pro Bowl selection and second-team All-Pro honors in his first year with the Falcons.

The projection for everyone else in 2024? Make that kind of jump, too. 

"We're expecting the other guys to take those steps," Gray said. "Everyone's gonna have to take a step up."

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