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Falcons must shore up red zone defense fast to avoid repeat of 2019

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Falcons' onside kick blunder made Deion exasperated (1:56)

Deion Sanders was shocked that the Falcons didn't recover the onside kick versus the Cowboys, saying Atlanta just keeps finding different ways to lose. (1:56)

Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Raheem Morris doesn’t need a reminder, but the numbers tell the whole story regarding his defense’s shaky performance through two games.

The 0-2 Falcons have surrendered 78 points and 953 total yards, including 772 passing yards. They’ve allowed quarterbacks to complete 77.4% of their passes, and they’ve yielded 6.9 yards per play. Not to mention both Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott were named NFC Offensive Player of the Week after their performances against the Falcons. Morris took the blame for underestimating Wilson as a pocket passer (322 passing yards and four touchdowns in Week 1), while Prescott had four total touchdowns, including three rushing.

Most importantly, the Falcons rank dead last in red zone defense, allowing opponents to convert 9 of 10 red zone trips for touchdowns. Red zone woes were also a problem during their 1-7 start to last season when they ranked second-to-last in the league after eight games -- allowing a conversion rate of 68.8.

“We put a real focus on the red zone," Morris said in preparation for Sunday’s matchup with Mitch Trubisky and the 2-0 Chicago Bears. “Giving up too many points when you get down there, it becomes an issue for you. You’ve got to stop points."

The Seattle Seahawks, who beat the Falcons 38-25 in the season opener, are perfect in the red zone so far partly because they were 4-for-4 against the Falcons. The Cowboys, who have converted 75% in the red zone, were 5-for-6 in a 40-39 win over the Falcons.

“Either get the ball or hold them to field goals,’’ safety Keanu Neal said bluntly. “So it comes down to execution and details.’’

What needs to change in the red zone?

“For me, the ultimate thing is to win," Morris said. “How do you win the next game? In order to win the games, you’ve got to stop people from scoring touchdowns. And the common theme right now is we’ve got to stop and slow down the run to not allow people to get mush yards down there to get close enough to be able to run quarterback sneaks. ... We get those things accomplished, we have a chance."

The Falcons also have to limit the big plays. The Falcons have given up the fourth-most explosive plays (those of 10-plus yards rushing or 20-plus yards receiving) with 17 total. They are ahead of just the Dolphins (22), Lions (19), and Bengals (18) in that category, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

“That’s been an issue," Morris said of the explosive plays. “If you would have asked what my second thing we had to focus on, it would have been the red zone No. 1, stopping touchdowns, and then how they got down there. The explosive plays are the ones that have allowed them to get down there. Those are things we’ve got to stop.

“That’s a part of our winning formula here: limiting explosive plays and our offense getting them. That first half (against Dallas, forcing three turnovers) is what you want it to look like. That second half is not. It goes back to Coach [Dan] Quinn and the tale of two halves, and we’ve got to fix those things and get those better."

Morris said there’s ”no doubt” the problems with explosive plays can be fixed, just like he’s confident about having a better showing in the red zone.

Maybe the biggest obstacle to making those improvements is the health of the defense. Six key defensive players were held out of practice Wednesday including top pass-rushers Dante Fowler Jr. (ankle) and Takk McKinley (groin), starting safeties Damontae Kazee (hip) and Ricardo Allen (hyperextended elbow), and playmaking linebacker Foye Oluokun (hamstring), who forced three fumbles in the first quarter at Dallas. Speedy cornerback Kendall Sheffield has yet to play this season while nursing a foot injury and will not be ready to play Sunday, according to a source. Sheffield should help limit the big plays upon returning.

It would be beneficial to have Fowler back, but he hasn't shown the same explosion since getting banged up in training camp. The Falcons don't really have great pass-rushers behind Fowler and McKinley, although Steven Means is a high-effort guy and John Cominsky is versatile enough to play inside and out.

If Allen and Kazee are unavailable, it could mean extended time for Neal in his return from an Achilles' tear and maybe more snaps for rookie Jaylinn Hawkins. Fellow rookie Mykal Walker saw extended time at linebacker last week due to Oluokun's injury.

Losing Oluokun, McKinley and Allen for the second half against the Cowboys contributed to the their dramatic comeback.

“When you go into every season every game, you know that’s always the case; that’s always going to happen,’’ Morris said of injuries. “The next man has to step up and he has to go in and fill out that role, finish that game -- no excuses. ... We don’t tolerate those things. ...

"In the National Football League [last] week, it was catastrophic with all the injuries that people had. You guys don't care. We don't care. Our ownership don't care about the injuries. It's about the next man stepping up and preparing those guys to get ready."