FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Atlanta cornerback Brent Grimes, a 2010 Pro Bowl player whom the Falcons used their franchise tag on this past offseason, was placed on the injured reserve list with an Achilles tendon injury and will miss the rest of the season, head coach Mike Smith said Monday.
Smith said Grimes would have surgery and that the recovery time would extend beyond the end of the season. An MRI revealed the injury, Smith said, but Smith did not use the word tear to describe it.
Pass defense has proved to be the Falcons’ greatest weakness in Smith’s first four seasons, as the team never has finished ranked above 20th in the NFL. In two of the past three offseasons, the Falcons have made it their top priority, signing cornerback Dunta Robinson in 2010 and then trading for four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel this year.
Smith said that acquiring Samuel from Philadelphia for a seventh-round draft pick gave the Falcons three players they considered to be No. 1 cornerbacks. Nonetheless, losing Grimes is a considerable setback.
“Obviously, it hurts our depth any time you lose a player of that caliber,” Smith said of Grimes, who had 13 interceptions over the past four seasons since becoming a starter. “Brent’s made a number of plays since we’ve been here; he’s been a cornerstone at the corner position, both left and right.”
Smith said Grimes’ injury will force the coaching staff to reconfigure the nickel package, with Robinson and Samuel now assuming the starting spots in the base defense. Smith said the Falcons only played their base defense for 11 plays on Sunday, meaning they used their nickel package with Samuel, Grimes and Robinson for the rest of the game.
Another major question is whether the Falcons choose to rethink their defensive philosophy. During the preseason, with corners of that caliber, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan played a lot of man to man, allowing him greater flexibility to blitz. With Grimes out, he might not have that luxury.
Another option is to play second-year middle linebacker Akeem Dent more (he comes out in the nickel), which would mean playing more base defense and less nickel — though Nolan has said he thinks the future of the league is playing more defensive backs to better defend against that phase of the game.
The Falcons face a significant drop-off in talent at cornerback. Among the most likely to play in the nickel is Christopher Owens, a third-round pick in 2009 who has started 10 games over the past three seasons and has three career interceptions but is mostly a reserve and special teams player. When Smith says the Falcons have to reconfigure their nickel package, it’s possible that the physical Robinson could stay in the slot. The past two seasons, the smaller Owens has played in the slot on nickel situations with Robinson staying at the right corner.
Falcons fans no doubt remember Owens as being the frequent target of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers in a 48-21 NFC divisional playoff game in January 2011, a season in which Atlanta went 13-3 and earned the conference’s top seed entering the postseason. Owens was filling in at nickel for the injured Brian Williams at the time.
“Chris is definitely a guy who has some experience and some playing time,” Smith said of him.
Another candidate is Dominique Franks, who was cut on the final day of roster cuts but re-signed on Wednesday to return punts. A third candidate is Robert McClain, who played previously with Jacksonville and Carolina.
In announcing the bad news, Smith betrayed no hint of concern.
“It’s the ‘next man up’ mentality, and that’s how you’ve got to approach it,” he said. “We’ve got a number of guys that have play time on our roster right now, and it’s something as a coaching staff we’ll put together what we feel is the best plan in terms of how we’ll configure our nickel package. I think that’s probably the biggest thing we have to do is figure how we want to configure who’s going to be playing where in our nickel package.”
In the offseason, Grimes’ agent initially had said publicly that Grimes wanted to sign a long-term deal and would not sign his tender. After the Falcons acquired Samuel, however, Grimes signed his one-year tender for more than $10.28 million. The Falcons are up against the salary cap, with reportedly just more than $1 million of room to make potential acquisitions, and they are not eligible for relief from the league.
In February, when he announced on the team’s flagship radio station that he would tag Grimes as the franchise player, general manager Thomas Dimitroff praised the fifth-year player, an undrafted free agent out of Division II Shippensburg (Pa). The 5-foot-10, 183-pound Grimes might lack size, but he has incredible leaping ability.
“Our feeling is Brent Grimes is an excellent athlete with the ability to move, cover, break on the ball with some of the top corners in the league, and we feel comfortable in his abilities,” Dimitroff said then. “The way he’s picked up our system, he’s settled in very nicely over the last years since we’ve been here and we just feel, as we all know, you’re always looking for corners who can settle into your system and cover and stay in phase, is what we call it often, and make big plays on the ball.
“And I think that Brent Grimes does that, obviously, against big, small, fast or slow receivers in this league, so we’re encouraged about having him back.”
The Falcons don’t have much time to get it figured out. Their next game is Monday night, when they host Denver and quarterback Peyton Manning.
“It didn’t look like their quarterback had missed a whole lot of time,” said Smith, who was once in the same division as Manning when he was the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville. “It looked like he had played last week in a regular-season ballgame. He was very efficient, had a great command of it. I was very familiar with Peyton Manning with my time in Jacksonville, (as was) Mike Nolan from his time in Baltimore (as defensive coordinator). We’ll have our hands full. Without a doubt he’ll get his (Hall of Fame) yellow jacket the first time he’s available.”