Whether it’s because of their draft pedigree or glimpses of excellence shown in limited snaps, there comes a point where many players get to prove their capabilities in a starter role. It just doesn’t always happen immediately.
Richie Grant didn’t have many memorable moments in his rookie season. His first year was essentially a learning experience, one spent making mental errors, getting punished for poor technique, and playing in multiple positions. It was a tricky start for a player the coaching staff seemed to have high expectations for.
The former second-round has been inserted in his much-preferred safety role this season, mixing between handling deep coverage responsibilities and being a physical presence in the box. It’s the type of versatility that Dean Pees loves from players, particularly defensive backs. The flexibility to play in multiple areas is one of the main reasons that made him so coveted. After deciding not to re-sign Keanu Neal, the organization needed a hard-hitting safety that could offer more from a coverage standpoint. It appears that Grant is that player.
Grant was expected to be the long-term starting strong safety, but didn’t initially solidify his place. Pees has one of the more complex defenses in the league. It normally takes a considerable amount of time to grasp the type and variety of coverages he runs, along with the pre-snap adjustments that must be made in different scenarios. The coaching staff didn’t believe he could do it right away, which led to Duron Harmon and Jaylinn Hawkins receiving more playing time alongside Erik Harris.
After how frequently big plays were being allowed because of both safeties’ lack of range and closing speed, the Falcons knew playing Harris and Harmon together again wasn’t an option. They needed to go for a complete youth overhaul in the starting lineup. Hawkins showed enough promise to justify a place in the starting lineup. Grant needed to do that following a frustrating first season marred by mistakes and instability. He couldn’t expect to simply walk in there and start feeling like he could manage the responsibilities of a safety in Pees’ defense.
With a strong commitment and understanding of how to read the field better, Grant is developing into a solid starter in the league. He is taking the right angles instead of being careless and indecisive with his movement. Despite missing eight tackles in ten games per Pro Football Focus, his tackling has noticeably improved, which has led to him finishing plays in the open field and making crucial third-down stops.
Recovering from setbacks and continuing to evolve
Most young safeties will find themselves on the receiving end of a highlight-reel play. They will also have their games where plays that are expected to be made simply aren’t. Grant had a rough spell in games against Cincinnati and Carolina. His infamous misfortune with the turf monster led to Tyler Boyd starting the Bengals’ all-out assault on the Falcons’ overmatched defense. Grant followed it up with multiple coverage busts and one horrendous penalty against Carolina. He didn’t let those negative moments derail him.
Grant has been terrific in the past two games against the Chargers and Panthers. There were far fewer explosive plays allowed through the air, as he maintained his composure in handling a wide variety of coverage responsibilities. Being able to take on blocks and battle through at the point of attack led to numerous standout plays in those games. As porous as the Falcons are against the run, they don’t allow 40+ yard runs thanks to Grant’s ability to play the run effectively.
One of the biggest attributes a safety can have is being at the right place at the right time. Being positionally sound usually leads to being around the ball at some point. That came to fruition for both of Grant’s interceptions. A game-sealing interception in Seattle came from capitalizing on a desperate heave from Geno Smith. His interception against the Chargers materialized by jumping on an error made by Joshua Palmer.
When an offense has to be desperate or commits a fundamental mistake, it creates an opportunity for the defense to pounce on it to produce a big play. Fan favorite William Moore did that over the course of his career. Despite never being particularly good in man coverage, he made his presence felt by putting himself in the position to make plays on the ball.
While Grant can hold his own in man coverage against tight ends, his big plays will come from understanding his coverage assignments and breaking on the ball when a quarterback decides to throw in his area.
All about consistency
Pees spoke about how the defense finally understands his philosophy. There is plenty to question and critique when it comes to how Pees is running the defense. What can’t be disputed is how much of a strong influence he has on players. Grant’s improvement isn’t solely based on playing more snaps in his natural position.
Pees has surely helped to make him a savvier player, one who is anticipating plays more quickly and taking better angles in the open field. To be a tone-setter, you have to play with anticipation and bear down ball carriers with conviction. Grant is starting to become that player. It’s now a matter of doing it at a consistent level.
On a defense in a never-ending rebuilding phase, Grant has shined in a demanding role. From standout games against Seattle and Tampa Bay to breaking up three passes against Carolina last Thursday night, a dependable starter is emerging on the back end. As is the case with most young players, it’s about taking impressive performances and making them the weekly standard. There will be missed tackles. There will be occasionally blown coverages. That comes with the territory of playing safety.
What must be there is the ability to play with awareness, discipline, intelligence, and technique. If Grant can maintain all four weekly, he will be there with A.J. Terrell as the cornerstones of a budding secondary. After all, it was anticipated he could become one of the next cornerstones before the season started.