Falcons try to sort out a crowded secondary
Brent Grimes tears off from one practice field to the next, leaping over a tackling pad that’s about as tall as he is along the way.
”What a freak,” a bystander says, marveling at the athleticism of the 5-foot-10 – if that – cornerback.
While Grimes made that feat look easy, it may be a little trickier for the Atlanta Falcons to keep everyone happy in the secondary. There are two traditional cornerback spots, and three very capable players eager to fill them.
Start with Grimes, a Pro Bowler in 2010 who received the franchise tag from the Falcons this season, setting him up to make more than $10 million. Then move to the other holdover, Dunta Robinson, who received a big-money deal a couple of years ago and has become known for his fierce, if somewhat borderline, hits. And finally, there’s the newcomer – four-time Pro Bowler Asante Samuel, who was acquired from Philadelphia over the offseason.
Everyone is eager to see how it all works out.
Just fine so far, insisted Robinson.
”If we were third-, maybe fourth-year players trying to create and make a name for ourselves, this could have potentially been a problem,” Robinson said. ”But the only goal, the only focus we have is winning. That makes the situation a lot easier.”
Those are telling words, because Robinson seems headed for the biggest change in the crowded alignment. When all three cornerbacks are on the field, as will frequently be the case, he’s the one who’ll likely be moving inside most of the time. That’s not what he necessarily signed on for, but he quickly points out that he filled a similar role in Houston during his first three years in the league.
”It’s not a tough adjustment for me at all,” Robinson said. ”It’s something I’ve been wanting to do more since I’ve been here. I’m having a lot of fun playing that position. It allows me to roam and do a lot of different things. It allows me to get involved in football. It’s not just covering guys, but it gets me involved in the run game. It allows me to blitz the quarterback. It opens up a lot of doors for me and allows me to be a football player.”
Samuel seemed to blend right in during training camp, yapping incessantly to anyone on his new team who would listen. He has that classic cornerback bravado, accompanied by a very short memory. Sure, he got beat by Cincinnati’s A.J. Green on a 50-yard touchdown pass in the last preseason game, but he’s already moved on.
”I feel good, man. Camp went great,” he said. ”We did a lot of good things on offense and defense. Everyone is flying around and having fun. I’m really looking forward to this year.”
Like Robinson, Samuel is having to get used to a new position of sorts. With Grimes likely to get most of the playing time on the left side, the new cornerback is working mostly on the right.
Asked if he prefers the left, Samuel replied: ”Of course. That’s where I made my living. All my production came on the left. The new thing to me is switching back and forth and getting my mojo right, getting the game plan together when I’m switching back and forth. But it’s all good. The coaches are going to do what they think is best.”
For now, coach Mike Smith is being vague about how he plans to use the three cornerbacks. But his intentions should become more apparent in Friday night’s game at Miami, when the starters will get their most extensive time of the preseason.
”I think it’s to our advantage to keep that in house in terms of how we want to play our corners,” Smith said. ”But we’ve got three very good corners. We’re going to play them at a number of positions. Most of the time, Dunta has been working as the inside corner, but there are times you have seen Brent and Asante line up inside as well. We’ve got a lot of flexibility and multiplicity. That’s the theme we want to have defensively this season.”
Grimes, who would have preferred a long-term deal instead of being franchised, said he had no problem with the Falcons adding a player of Samuel’s caliber in a bargain-rate deal with the Eagles.
”I knew anytime you can bring a great player to your team, another player who has made a lot of plays in this league, it’s always a bonus,” Grimes said. ”I knew he could help out the secondary. Definitely, I knew we could have something good here.”
As for his contract, Grimes said he’s not carrying any lingering bitterness into the season.
”I tell people all the time, and it’s the truth, I don’t really think about it,” he said. ”My agent deals with it and I call and talk to him sometimes, but I just come out here and play and I figure the rest will handle itself. I just do my job.”
While everyone is going through a bit of a learning process, not only with different roles but adjusting to new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons seem confident about maintaining a harmonious balance.
Besides, there should be plenty of snaps to go around, playing in a pass-happy division that features two games a year against Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and Cam Newton of Carolina Panthers.
”There aren’t a lot of teams that are playing full games with two receivers,” Robinson pointed out. ”Most teams are playing three- and four-receiver sets. Sixty percent of the game, it’s going to be three of us on field anyway. We understand that.”
”This,” he added, ”is going to be as good as we want it to be. And we want it to be good.”
NOTES: CB Darrin Walls (soft tissue injury) will definitely miss Friday’s game, and Smith said he might also have to sit out the final preseason contest. … Asked about red zone struggles in the first two games, Smith said the team devotes about 20 percent of the snaps in practice to those situations. ”It’s an emphasis point,” he said.
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum in Flowery Branch, Ga., contributed to this article.
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