The Falcons have sort of weathered the storm with Keanu Neal out. Damontae Kazee and Jordan Richards haven’t been amazing, but they’re been at least solid (more Kazee than Richards, of course). The bigger troubles have been in the front seven, where a lack of a quality pass rush and some middling linebacker play have hurt.
That said, the Falcons are far worse off than they would be with Neal in the lineup, But what happens if Ricardo Allen misses significant time, too?
In this unbelievable nightmare hellscape of a season, that possibility is now on the table. We will likely start hearing about Allen’s status as soon as tomorrow, but the possibility that the Falcons could be down two excellent safeties should and will fill every Falcons fan with dread. There’s almost zero chance the team would charge ahead with Damontae Kazee, Jordan Richards and Keith Tandy between the two positions, even if all three have starting experience at this point.
Before I go any further, I’d like to stress that I don’t know that Allen will be out for any length of time. This season has taught me to expect the worst.
Why they’re in trouble
Allen’s just a quality safety, one who is acknowledged as an effective communicator and leader for this defense. Without him out there, the team is leaning on players who just don’t have that experience and reputation. They’re also relying on players who haven’t shown the aptitude to make the kind of absurdly difficult, play-saving open field tackles that Allen has perfected over the last few seasons, though Kazee has shown some real promise in that regard.
Allen’s strengths have never exactly earned him recognition from the fanbase, but we’ve come to increasingly appreciate him as the defense has improved. If the team lost physicality and playmaking ability with Neal, they’re losing steadiness and leadership with Allen. Both will hurt a lot.
How they might address the position
First of all, Damontae Kazee will likely start at free safety for the rest of the year if Allen’s out. That’s the easy part, I think, because Kazee has shown promise there and the Falcons have shown they trust him there. The hard part comes from trying to figure out what to do at strong safety over the long haul, because the Falcons don’t have any slam dunk candidates in-house.
One option would be Jordan Richards, who filled in against the Panthers and showed some solid instincts against the run combined with not-so-solid instincts in coverage. He was known for his adventures with the Patriots, who gave him away for nothing despite the state of their defense, so that’s unlikely to be more than a stopgap option. Ditto Keith Tandy, who was inactive against the Saints despite a long history of starting games for the Buccaneers and playing reasonably well doing so.
The other, more unorthodox option would be to put Brian Poole at strong safety. Poole isn’t big, but he’s extremely physical. His coverage has not been inspiring this year to this point, but he’d likely be better than Richards in that regard, and the Falcons could roll out Blidi Wreh-Wilson or Isaiah Oliver at cornerback if they shifted him over. It’d be a pretty big shift, but one I think Poole could probably handle.
The final option is to replace him with an outside candidate. Eric Reid is the obvious choice given his skillset, relative youth, and history of production, but he’s gone unsigned this entire time as he pursues a collusion case against the NFL, so for better or (more likely) for worse I’m guessing we won’t see Atlanta sign him. That leaves guys like the amusingly-named Fish Smithson, former quality starters with recent difficulties like T.J. Ward and Tyvon Branch, and bargain basement types to fill out the back end of the roster. There’s just not as much out there as there once was, and it’s frustrating to realize that the team really would have had the opportunity to use Ron Parker had they kept him around.
Any way you slice it, the Falcons defense will be worse without Ricardo Allen. Hope against hope that he can come back healthy soon so we don’t have to find out just how much worse.