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Samuel finds perfect fit in Atlanta
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga.
He mocked Tom Brady after beating New England, famously sending a Twitter message featuring a photo of their confrontation along with the caption, “U Mad Bro?”
Spewing such smack this season has helped establish Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman among the NFL’s most notorious trash-talkers entering Sunday’s second-round game at Atlanta (1 p.m. ET on FOX).
Yet no matter what Sherman says inside the Georgia Dome, it will likely fall upon deaf ears. That’s because Atlanta’s offense already hears during every practice from a motor-mouthed cornerback who possesses just as much “swag” and an even more impressive NFL resume.
Asante Samuel isn’t shy bragging about it, either, when asked to compare Sherman’s style to his.
“He’s pretty darn confident,” Samuel told FOXSports.com on Thursday at Falcons headquarters. “He plays pretty good ball.
“But there’s only one (No.) 22, man.”
Samuel then punctuated the point by proudly using of one of his favorite self-identifying catchphrases: “Deuce here, Deuce here.”
The Falcons wouldn’t want him anyplace else.
It isn’t lip service when his teammates talk about Samuel’s impact since he arrived here last April in the league’s biggest offseason steal. Samuel, 32, continued to play at a high level in his 10th NFL season. He had five interceptions and 19 passes defensed — Samuel’s highest total since playing with Philadelphia in 2008 — on a unit that ranked fourth in fewest points allowed (18.7 a game) during the regular season. According to STATS LLC, quarterbacks completed only 52.7 percent of the 74 passes thrown Samuel’s way.
Numbers, though, only tell part of what he has meant.
When he arrived in a trade with Philadelphia for a mere seventh-round draft choice, the Falcons had a solid secondary but a mild-mannered one. There was little of the verbal bluster that can become infectious and spur inspired performances.
Samuel immediately began providing that during offseason practices.
When he hadn’t had a pass thrown in his direction during the team’s initial OTA sessions, Samuel began challenging Matt Ryan to come his way — loudly. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who orchestrated the deal with Philadelphia and knew Samuel from when both were with the New England Patriots from 2003 to 2007, even got called out on the sideline.
“I’m like, ‘Matt! You’ve got to throw the ball over here! I’ve got to show these people what I can do! Thomas — tell Matt to throw the ball over here!’” Samuel said with a smile.
When the Falcons quarterback finally acquiesced, Samuel intercepted Ryan the same way he had in three of four previous career meetings. Samuel celebrated by wildly running around the practice fields hollering and giving Dimitroff some good-natured grief.
Those antics admittedly stunned Atlanta’s other defensive backs and laid the groundwork for them to come out of their shells.
“We saw, ‘We … can … actually … get … away … with … (saying) that?’” said Falcons free safety Thomas DeCoud, pausing between words to emphasize how startled he and his teammates were by how Samuel carries himself.
“It’s definitely helped us a lot this season. We’ve turned it up. That swagger has turned into turnovers, pass breakups and confidence that he has amplified for us to become better players.”
DeCoud and strong safety William Moore both enjoyed their best NFL seasons. Fellow starting cornerback Dunta Robinson began justifying the six-year, $57 million free-agent contract he signed to leave Houston during the 2011 offseason. And the Falcons were able to weather the loss of nickel cornerback Brent Grimes, the team’s 2012 franchise player who suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the season-opener.
“We feed into it,” Moore said of Samuel’s personality. “When you see guys doing stuff like that, one thing you learn is to be confident in yourself and what you can do. We just follow him.”
That’s a form of leadership often lost amid Samuel’s bravado.
“I’m a talk s*** guy,” Samuel said. “I talk s*** to everybody — the offense, the quarterback, the offensive coordinator. They had my back and came along with me. They started chirping.
“It just raises the energy in practice. Everybody is competing and getting better. That’s what the coaches and players love.”
The NFL franchise from the City of Brotherly Love could have used Samuel in 2012. However, Philadelphia began setting the stage for Samuel’s departure in the 2011 offseason by signing prized cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency and acquiring Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as part of a trade with Arizona involving quarterback Kevin Kolb.
The Eagles tried trading Samuel during the 2011 season but his $5.9 million base salary scared potential suitors away. With his 2012 base salary slated at $9.5 million, the deal with Atlanta was completed before the NFL draft only because Samuel agreed to a restructured three-year, $14.5 million contract.
Samuel’s presence was sorely missed in Philadelphia with Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie both tanking en route to a 4-12 season that got head coach Andy Reid fired. As the Falcons put the finishing touches on a lopsided 30-17 road win over the Eagles in late October, Samuel and his fellow defensive backs celebrated by dancing on the sideline. Reid was angry enough that he snubbed Samuel after the game.
Samuel told FOXSports.com that he still has “love for Philly” and “it kind of hurt a little bit” to see how badly the defense played in 2012. Samuel, though, has no sympathy for those in Eagles management who did “bad business” by getting rid of him.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last July that Reid believed Samuel’s skills were in “deep decline.” Reid emphatically denied saying such, but the words stuck with Samuel. When news broke in October that Reid had fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, Samuel posted on Twitter that “sometimes you have to blame yourself. You can't try and always point the figure at someone else. I'm just saying ... Ain’t no decline over here.”
Asked whether he played as well last season in Philadelphia as in 2012 with the Falcons, the 32-year-old Samuel said, “I think there wasn’t too much of a difference. I had three interceptions instead of five. I had less passes defensedm but I got much less action. They were throwing the ball to the other side to other people.
“The whole team was kind of in shambles. I’m trying to hold everybody together, still trying to be the leader and get the secondary right. As you can see, the leadership left from the secondary when I was gone.”
Samuel’s next goal is to bring his own penchant for playoff success to a Falcons team that lost its opening game in three of the past four seasons. Stemming largely from his time in New England, Samuel is the NFL’s all-time postseason leader in interceptions returned for touchdowns (four) and passes defensed (25). With one more interception, Samuel will tie Baltimore safety Ed Reed’s postseason interception record of eight.
Just like with Sherman, the only way Atlanta will silence its critics is by ending its playoff drought. Moore said Samuel already is getting the team mentally prepared to roar.
“He carried us all through the season with some of his positive energy,” Moore said. “In practice, he’s still doing it now. He’s saying, ‘We ain’t going home early! We’re going to roll!’
“We need that.”