FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — To look at the arc of the career of Atlanta Falcons cornerback Christopher Owens from a certain direction, one can see a downward trend.
As a rookie in 2009, Owens started six games. Then it was three the next season, two last and only one this year in 12 games.
Yet on Thursday, when Falcons starting left cornerback Asante Samuel went out of the game on the third play from scrimmage, Owens had to step in against a New Orleans offense that had bedeviled the Falcons. In the teams’ previous seven meetings, the Saints averaged nearly 29 points against Atlanta.
However, as much as Owens’ young career has been marked by struggles — notably against Green Bay in the playoffs in January 2011, as the Packers whipped the Falcons 48-21 — he has made slow, steady strides that suddenly became noticeable against New Orleans last week.
Owens illustrated why the front office and coaching staff have had so much faith in him when others have questioned why the Falcons kept him on the roster. He posted, arguably, the best game of his career. He equaled a career high with two passes defended and also made three solo tackles.
A third-round draft pick in 2009, Owens was humble in reflecting on the game.
“I think it’s a start, that’s all,” he said. “I’m not too high on myself. I’m not too down. There’s some stuff I could’ve done better, looking at the film. It’s just a start, really.”
A few locker stalls down from Owens sits fellow cornerback Dunta Robinson, who is in his ninth season. Robinson provided the perspective that Owens, out of modesty or shyness, didn’t. Robinson said that when Samuel left the game, he took Owens aside and said, “‘you got to step in and play big.’”
“And he looked at me with a lot of confidence and he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I got you,’” Robinson said. “He went out there and played amazing, man. We didn’t miss a beat.”
Then Robinson, who has suffered through a concussion during his career, referenced the fact that Owens missed two games earlier this season with the same issue.
“For Chris, with all he’s been through with the injuries — similar to mine — to see him overcome those things, it’s big for him,” Robinson said. “I’m very proud and happy for him.”
One factor that might have benefited Owens was the coaching staff’s decision to play him on the outside. Previously, they would play him at the inside corner in the nickel package and move the regular nickel back to the outside. However, with first-year Falcon Robert McClain playing so well at the inside corner, where he is the starter, the coaches elected to keep McClain there. Coaches say it’s easier to play the outside corner because a defender can use the boundary to his benefit, whereas on the inside, receivers have more freedom to run their routes.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith said part of the decision also was determined by the fact Owens had taken more snaps in practice on the outside. Owens said he has no preference between the outside and inside corner.
“I’m not foreign to the position, so I feel all right,” he said. “ . . . As long as I’m out there.”
With performances like that, Owens might earn himself more playing time.
“I thought he did a nice job,” Smith said. “He had a pass breakup on a deep ball there in the second quarter and did some good things.”
The defining factor will be the health status of others. The Falcons are already down one corner with 2010 Pro Bowl selection Brent Grimes going down for the season in Week 1 then Samuel missed almost all of last week’s game and has been limited in his last three because of a right shoulder injury.
“The competition in our room was just so high,” Robinson said. “We’re you an 11-1 football team, competition is going to be a big part of that. You’ve got to have guys who can play when guys go down. So he just waited for his number to be called. He didn’t get uptight about it; he didn’t get upset about it. His number was called Thursday, and he delivered. And ultimately, I think, that will work out in his favor.”
Samuel did not practice Wednesday. Smith has been circumspect on whether the Falcons would rest players like him, who might be injured but could still play, now that they have already clinched the NFC South title. If Samuel cannot play — or cannot play much again — it will be another opportunity for Owens.
“He shows some good drive on the ball,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “They are deep. That’s one thing you have to give them credit for.”
For now, Owens’ confidence appears to be riding high and his teammates have noticed.
“And that comes with experience,” Robinson said. “That comes with years. The more you play in this game, the more confidence you develop. And if you don’t develop that confidence, then you’ll be out of this league. Chris is one of those guys who I think can play for in this league for a long time, and I think he will.
“Every year, he’s coming out, he’s playing with a lot of confidence. He took a lot of slack in his early years for not playing particularly well, but to put that behind him and have the kind of game he had on national TV — I was very proud of him.”