Every successful team needs a glue player on their defense. It’s the type of player that is willing to communicate as much as possible, while cultivating and organizing an entire unit. Ricardo Allen has evolved into that player over the course of his career. The nearly-forgotten cornerback converted into playing free safety in 2015. Following the positional switch, he hasn’t looked back in becoming one of the better free safeties in the league.
Although his season-ending injury in Week 3 wasn’t as notable as other star players on the roster, Allen’s absence was greatly felt. The defense looked disorganized and befuddled for the majority of the season. Their struggles showed how much of a difference maker Allen is. Despite never producing gaudy numbers, his impact on and off the field can’t be undervalued.
When the Falcons went on their glorious Super Bowl run in 2016, everyone was mostly gushing about their electrifying offense. If the defense received publicity, it was directed towards the NFL sack king Vic Beasley. That changed during Super Bowl week. More defensive players started to receive national attention. Allen was one of those recognized players, who was acknowledged for being an excellent communicator and leader. For a player, who had only played free safety for two seasons to be universally respected that quickly, shows how influential he is to the entire team.
Allen is an integral figure to what the Falcons have built during Dan Quinn’s tenure. When Allen received a well-deserved extension, the fiery head coach asked during a team meeting for a show of hands of who has been mentored by Allen. Per ESPN’s Vaughn McClure, a plethora of hands were raised. How the former undersized cornerback evolved into being an indispensable figure on the roster is remarkable. On nearly every play, he can be seen waving his hands and shouting instructions. Taking the full initiative in a highly demanding position within Quinn’s scheme is something Allen does on a weekly basis.
The amount of coverage breakdowns that took place following his season-ending injury only further increased his value as a leader. As talented as Damontae Kazee is, it was an impossible task for him to command the deep middle of the field like Allen. To remain positionally disciplined while making sure your teammates are well-positioned is a tall order for most players, let alone a second-year player with minimal NFL experience. Allen’s relentless work ethic and willingness to constantly communicate makes him well-suited for the job. Alongside star strong safety Keanu Neal, they form one of the top safety pairings in the league. It’s a major reason why the Falcons were a top-ten caliber defense in 2017.
There were many questions about Allen entering the 2015 season. The main one consisted of how can a former fifth round pick with essentially no free safety experience play “the Earl Thomas role” in Quinn’s defense. Allen wasn’t considered a special athlete coming out of Purdue. Critics questioned if he had the range to cover acres of space. They also doubted his ability to consistently tackle in the open field. On a rebuilding defense filled with question marks, fans were worried about the Falcons not drafting or signing a more capable player to handle such a vital role within the scheme.
An inconsistent first year was quickly forgotten by two outstanding seasons in 2016 and 2017. Allen took full reigns in handling one of the most important positions within Quinn’s Cover 3 based defense. Although he doesn’t have the playmaking abilities of Thomas (who does?), Allen makes up for it with his composure and intelligence. His range in coverage played a significant role in the Falcons allowing the eighth fewest passing plays of 20 yards or more in 2017. If he wasn’t closing down potential open passing windows, the underappreciated safety was making touchdown-saving tackles against the run. That was particularly evident in 2016 when the Falcons struggled to contain opposing running games.
Allen is the embodiment of a player who is far better than the stat sheet indicates. It’s difficult to make many high-impact plays when your 15 yards away from the play on most occasions. Playing alongside young studs like Neal and Deion Jones can also prevent your opportunities to create turnovers as well. Allen has found his niche as the big-play erasing, strong-minded versatile safety. His knack for negating big play opportunities downfield, while not being fazed at the prospect of lining up near the line of scrimmage gives Quinn the flexibility every head coach desires. His reliability as a tackler correlates perfectly with Neal’s soul-crushing hits.
Besides being a terrific leader, Allen is someone who never shies away from adversity. He will be at the forefront of any situation if something goes awry. After the Falcons blew a 17-point lead against the Dolphins in October 2017, Allen spoke candidly of how the defense crumbled and how everyone must be held accountable for an inexcusable defeat. That moment made him more appreciated across the league.
I spoke to Allen two weeks later after the Falcons earned a much-needed victory over the Jets. He expressed how he connects with all his teammates, regardless if they’re a rookie or ten-year veteran. It wasn’t simply about being a leader. It was about being an outlet for anyone who needed advice, as someone who takes pride on studying the sport like a head coach.
There are plenty of reasons why players and coaches talk highly of Allen. How he continuously works to improve as a player, while helping others grow makes him someone you want playing for your team. Despite enduring a second consecutive close loss to the Eagles, Allen spoke to me about how proud he was of Kazee. The promising safety stepped in for the injured Neal and made an immediate impact. Instead of fixating on another cruel defeat, Allen praised one of his teammates for playing well in a difficult spot. That’s another example of why he is so beloved in the locker room.
There is no such thing as an easy recovery from a torn Achilles. It’s one of the most gruesome injuries an athlete can suffer. Thankfully for Allen’s sake, the injury occurred in September rather than December. It should make him ready for training camp barring any unexpected setback. The coaching staff will be eager to see him return along with Neal. To get back one of the top safety tandems in the league should help transform an unsettled defense.
Allen signed a three-year, $19.5 million-dollar extension last August through 2021. It was a fantastic moment for a player who was cut by the same team in 2014. After the new coaching staff gave him a chance to start in 2015, the astute free safety has developed into one of the most valuable defensive players on the roster. Responding from major setbacks has been the story of Allen’s career. You’d expect him to recover once again to reclaim his spot as the defense’s main leader and organizer.