Since the end of the season, Atlanta has had a lot of shuffling take place amongst their linebackers and defensive backs. They regained Desmond Trufant from his season ending injury, drafted Duke Riley and Damonate Kazee, and most recently received news that Jalen Collins was handed a 10 game suspension by the league.
Jalen Collins played well from the Thursday night bludgeoning against the Buccaneers to the NFC Championship beatdown of the Green Bay Packers, but the Falcons have capable depth behind him. Robert Alford and Trufant will man the top two spots on the cornerback depth chart while Brian Poole handles slot duties in the nickel package. Poole was a gem as an undrafted rookie and he’ll see a large bulk of snaps yet again with Collins under suspension.
According to Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus, the Falcons were in nickel (three cornerbacks) 65% of the time and dime (four cornerbacks) 14% of the time. Over the past few years we’ve heard “nickel is the new base” repeatedly; these numbers give credence to the shift in the way defense has evolved. The were their dime package just as frequently as their traditional base package with three linebackers and two cornerbacks.
Excluding Jalen Collins, here’s how the Falcons’ secondary should sort out by the time the season starts. Notice the versatility in this group, several players will be listed twice.
Note: Don’t get caught up in the order of these players. Just a prediction of who will get snaps where during the offseason. Rookies are noted with an asterisk.
Outside Cornerbacks: Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Brian Poole, C.J. Goodwin, one of Akeem King, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, or Deji Olatoye
Slot Cornerbacks: Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Brian Poole, Damontae Kazee*, Ricardo Allen in a pinch
Free Safeties: Ricardo Allen, Damontae Kazee, Brian Poole
Strong Safeties: Keanu Neal, Sharrod Neasman, Kemal Ishmael
Brian Poole is going to play a large role in the secondary this season, as he’ll be asked to play all over the field depending on the matchup. Fifth round pick Damontae Kazee has put together highlight reel interceptions throughout the early portion of camp and has established himself as the wild card in this secondary.
At San Diego State he spent the vast majority of his reps at right cornerback (467 of his 505 coverage snaps according to the Pro Football Focus draft guide) in a defense that was primarily Quarters/Cover 4. Moving from a defense that runs Cover 4 to a heavy Cover 3 defense while changing positions will give him a bit of learning curve in the early portion of his career.
Here’s where Kazee will be playing in his new Cover 3 defense versus his old Cover 4 defense. Diagrams courtesy of Code and Football.
Note: Kazee’s spot will be highlighted by the orange arrows pointing to the yellow dots on the field.
Cover 4 defenses have a lot of times where the zone coverage matches into man coverage, so if the Falcons late-season trend of running more man coverage holds firm he won’t be completely tossed to the wolves from the slot.
Moving to free safety will be a challenge, but he does have the playmaking ability and instincts to make big plays on the ball.
That’s a glimpse at the secondary, but the group of linebackers the Falcons have will also be a fun battle to watch throughout the preseason.
There isn’t as much versatility in this group as there is in the secondary, but there are a few players that have been cross-trained.
Middle Linebacker: Deion Jones, LaRoy Reynolds
Weakside Linebacker: Duke Riley*, Kemal Ishmael, De’Vondre Campbell
Strongside Linebacker: De’Vondre Campbell, Vic Beasley, J’Terius Jones*
De’Vondre Campbell is the most interesting cog in the Falcons’ linebacker corp. He’s been moved to strongside linebacker for the 2017 season, which is primarily an edge defending and pass rushing position. Campbell has worked with the pass rushers at times during this camp and worked out with former Falcon and pass rushing coach Chuck Smith this offseason.
This is the Falcons’ 4-3 Under “base” look. The orange oval displays where Campbell will be lining up this season, the purple oval displays where Campbell played last year (and where Duke Riley will be playing this year).
Moving Campbell closer to the line of scrimmage should help his play improve. He struggled at times getting lost in coverage; the coverage responsibilities for the strong side linebacker are limited. He’ll either be running to the flat or taking the tight end, running back, or fullback on in man coverage.
Remember: The Falcons were in nickel 65% of the time last season, the nickel set removes the strongside linebacker for an extra cornerback. Unless Duke Riley looks like the next Lavonte David this season, it’d be safe to expect De’Vondre Campbell to work into the nickel sets at weakside linebacker.
Kemal Ishmael is an intriguing piece as he moves from strong safety to weakside linebacker, but honestly those positions aren’t very different from each other in terms of coverage responsibilities in Cover 3.
The zones that the weakside linebacker and strong safety can potentially inhabit are outlined in purple.
This graphic by Pro Football Focus details the overlap in where the strong safeties and linebackers line up. Keanu Neal played a bit of everywhere.
The Falcons have a lot of moving pieces and versatility in their back seven. Hopefully the suspension of Jalen Collins doesn’t hurt too badly. He was good to close last season, but Brian Poole has already shown to be a capable starter.
An area to watch in the preseason will be the amount of reps Duke Riley, Kemal Ishmael, and De’Vondre Campbell split with the first team nickel set. That’ll give a good insight to Duke Riley’s entrance to the team and De’Vondre Campbell’s development at strongside linebacker.
Football is back, fellow Falcoholics. We’ll see you Thursday as the Falcons’ preseason schedule opens against the Dolphins.