Falcons catching no breaks with injuries on defense
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Takk McKinley says nobody feels sorry for the Atlanta Falcons' injury-ravaged defense.
The second-year pass rusher makes a good point. Atlanta earned a playoff berth the past two years with a mostly healthy defense, but it's a different story this season.
The Falcons (1-3) are reeling now that Grady Jarrett, their best interior lineman, is the fourth defensive starter to miss Sunday's game at Pittsburgh (1-2-1).
"It sucks not having Grady out there, but we can't be sad, because the Steelers won't be sad about it," McKinley said. "They won't."
Jarrett's ankle injury comes with the team's best linebacker, Deion Jones, already out another six weeks and starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen done for the season.
After allowing 80 points combined and losing their past two games in the closing seconds, the Falcons rank third-worst in scoring, fifth-worst in total yards and second-worst in third-down percentage. They're a banged-up group that can't seem to catch a break.
Starting end Vic Beasley is nursing a sore ankle and has been limited in practice this week. Reserve end Derrick Shelby has been limited with a groin injury and hasn't played since the Week 2 win over Carolina.
Injuries at safety has given starting jobs to Damontae Kazee, who played in 16 games as a reserve last year, and rookie Isaiah Oliver, who played exclusively at cornerback in his last two seasons at Colorado.
Coaches have leaned heavily on Kazee to tone down his aggressiveness following a penalty in preseason and an ejection for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton.
And the staff is working with Oliver, who made a big mistake last week against Cincinnati. Coordinator Marquand Manuel called zone coverage, and Oliver was playing too far in front when A.J. Green dashed behind him for the winning touchdown catch.
"Going forward, I told the guys that you can't line up without talking to one person," Manuel said. "It's the growing pains that you have to go through, but that's a part of it. It's new guys talking to new guys, and guys that have experience, we need them to talk more. And the guys that don't have it, we need you to talk to guys that have it. That's where communication starts."
Losing Jarrett is substantial enough that the Falcons will use a three-man rotation of Jack Crawford and Terrell McClain, a pair of longtime veterans, and Michael Bennett, who was signed this week after injuries allowed him to play in just one game last year with Jacksonville, to fill his spot.
Rookie Deadrin Senat, a third-round pick, will take most of the snaps at nose tackle, where Crawford and McClain have split starts this year. Coach Dan Quinn added that third-string end Steven Means, signed last month, might have to help out on the inside, too.
Trying to restore some order for his defense, Quinn has spent the past few days emphasizing better fundamentals in tackling, ball-hawking, pass rush and communication.
"None of those are scheme-related," Quinn said. "None of those are wholesale changes. It's a matter of us doing specifically those four things really well, and that's why I think you'll see this group get better quickly because of those four things."
There was some progress last week. Missed tackles dropped from 15 the week before to "single digits," as Quinn described it, against Cincinnati. Kazee got his first career interception, and McKinley, after missing the Week 3 loss to New Orleans with a groin injury, returned to have his first three-sack game.
Linebacker Duke Riley says McKinley brought some swagger back to the defense.
"We can't make the excuses that we don't have the guys," Riley said. "We have the right guys in the room. We've just got to own up to it and be closers."
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