Ever find yourself in a good predicament? The Falcons have many questions regarding their defense, but the back-end of their secondary is not one of them. They have a diverse surplus at the safety position, but with the right scheme, they could all see the field at once.
Raheem Morris will implement his philosophies even more so this year with a full offseason to prepare. To showcase his ability to fit his scheme to the given personnel — he must highlight three starting-caliber safeties where there is traditionally only room for two.
Morris’s time in Tampa Bay plays a considerable role in his future plans. The traditional Tampa 2 has been replicated and modified many times since its conception. Mike Tomlin, Gus Bradley, and Rod Marinelli all developed their own defensive schemes but were all rooted in the cover-2 zone principles. Morris will proceed very similarly. Dan Quinn carried a cover-3 zone with him when he left Seattle, and Morris plans to replicate his Tampa 2 tendencies within the cover-3 principles.
Each of the aforementioned safeties provides a unique set of skills to the defense. Keanu Neal has not been healthy since 2017 after suffering back-to-back season-ending injuries. There’s belief that he is back or close to 100%, but it would not be a shock if he had a slow start to the season. Regardless, Neal has a place in this defense, and even with average play, it will be an improvement from last year at strong safety.
Neal plays the position role similar to Kam Chancellor (whose career was cut short due to a neck injury) – hard-nosed and downhill. Neal’s effort against tight ends is commendable, but where he thrives is playing near the line of scrimmage in the box, which is entirely different than his other two counterparts.
Ricardo Allen’s intangibles are what make him the vocal leader on the defense. Though he was also injured last year, the buzz is the same around Allen as it is Neal — they look healthy and ready to play. Allen might not be the bruiser that Neal is, but is significantly better in coverage and has a substantially higher football IQ. He is a sort of middle ground between Neal and Kazee. Allen is able to cover in space better than Neal and better in man-to-man coverage, particularly against tight ends, than Kazee.
Damontae Kazee is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Keanu Neal. He is a ball-hawking, centerfield free safety. He assumed an increased workload in 2018 when the two starters fell to season-ending injuries and did not disappoint. He uses his range in combination with his instincts well, propelling him to the team lead in interceptions in 2018.
The three would work well together in a “Big” nickel defensive set. Allen at strong safety, Kazee at free safety, and Neal acting in a hybrid linebacker role. These sub-packages are becoming more and more relevant in today’s position-less football. Players must be fluid in their ability to know multiple roles. This also represents a potential opportunity for Raheem Morris to disguise coverages and blitzes (even if they are few and far between).
Allen will act as an Earl Thomas, as he covers better than the other safeties but can still hold his own in the box, thanks to his understanding of what offenses are trying to do. He would be able to move all over, as he is the brains of the three, reading and reacting to what he sees. This would allow Keanu Neal to play in the box full-time. Thus, making way for Kazee to thrive in his best role as the centerfielder.
All three have a diverse set of skills that complement each other well. The cohesiveness of the group can only be determined by on-field play and will take time as they learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Optimistically, the way these three have performed individually at different points in their careers should have fans excited for their potential together.