FLOWRY BRUNCH, Georgia. Security guard Richie Grant stood behind his booth in the almost empty locker room of the Atlanta Falcons on Monday afternoon. A couple of teammates were hanging around, a couple more were playing table tennis, but he was answering questions.
In a way, after the last two weeks, it was the right look for the secondary team. The Falcons entered the season with a minor team that was their deepest and most talented team. Casey Hayward, a former professional bowler, was on one corner. AJ Terrell, one of the league’s best young cornerbacks, was on the other side.
The fuses were new, Jaylynn Hawkins and Grant in the early years as regular starters, but the combination of the four looked formidable.
And now, by the eighth week of the season, Grant could be the only one to play against Carolina on Sunday.
“It crossed my mind,” Grant said. “But I will say that I have seen every guy in our second ball and I have confidence in all of them.
“I’m really excited about the opportunity they could have.”
What was once a pretty strong starting four could turn out to be a bunch of question marks. Atlanta already ruled Hawkins out of Sunday’s game as he is on concussion protocol. Falcons coach Arthur Smith said Terrell, who suffered a right hamstring injury against the Cincinnati Bengals, “week after week.” The reality is that if Terrell doesn’t practice much, he probably won’t play. Atlanta tends to be patient with injuries so they don’t turn into long-term problems.
Hayward has already missed one game and is on standby with a shoulder injury requiring surgery.
Hayward (340 shots), Terrell (358) and Hawkins (404) have done a great job this season. Terrell leads the team in pass interruption (five), while Hawkins (41) and Terrell (29) are in the team’s top five players.
Sophomore year cornerback Darren Hall started his second career start in place of Hayward last week against Cincinnati. After Terrell lost eight draws in the game, everything changed. Terrell was going to keep an eye on Cincinnati star wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase.
With Terrell gone, the defense plan changed. Hall has been watching Terrell’s moves throughout the week in practice, but it still doesn’t feel like playing against one of the NFL’s top receivers.
“That’s what happens in games. Everyone faces something,” Smith said. “This is the National Football League. When we entered this game, we knew that we knew their strengths, and they did a great job, and we did not do it ahead of time.
“You fall into a hole like this and you have to adapt.”
Bengals quarterback Joe Barrow threw for 481 yards against Atlanta, the second-best pass in a game against the Falcons.
Hall will remain in the starting lineup. If Terrell can’t play, then things get a little more complicated. Cornell Armstrong, who was on the practice team and was promoted to play, ended up playing opposite Hall most of the time. Perhaps he will be there again. Dee Alford, who missed the game in Cincinnati with a hamstring injury, “day after day.” The Falcons could start with Alford across from Hall if he recovers. Isaiah Oliver, the team’s nickelback, would be another option, but he gives the Falcons stability in midfield.
The Falcons could play Mike Ford, who is primarily a special teams ace but has nine defensive starts. You can also turn to rookie practice corner corner Matt Hankins or second-year pro Dylan Mabin, who is also on the practice team.
Smith on Monday did not rule out a waiver suit if the right player was available.
“You’re confident in the person, otherwise they wouldn’t be here, right?” security Eric Harris said. “So let’s start with that. So we have confidence. We are a close group. It comes with experience.”
Harris said experience with surfaces and systems can help ease the transition that can come from players missing time.
Security is a little easier to decipher. Without Hawkins, the Falcons can count on Harris, who started 12 safeties for Atlanta last season and 43 in his career. Or he could move on to Dean Marlowe, who started 16 NFL games and replaced Hawkins on Sunday when he left.
Having two veterans supporting two younger players – both Hawkins and Grant have rookie contracts – was partly by design.
“That’s the strategy that underpins the construction of some lineups,” Smith said. “And what are you trying to develop from the guys on your team and the guys that were in your program so that they know your system.”