FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – In one of his innumerably colorful moments less than a week into Falcons training camp, cornerback Asante Samuel volleyed a comment across the divide that separates offense and defense in the direction of new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
After an incomplete pass, Samuel’s words were to the effect that Koetter should check the spacing between the receivers’ routes on that particular play.
“If you’re not having fun, you’re just going to be going through the motions.” Samuel said of his practice field antics, “so having fun and talking trash, putting the bulls-eye on your chest, it makes you stand up in the paint.”
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Some coaches might not take too kindly to such a defensive player telling them their business, but Koetter simply responded with a deferential tip of the visor.
Such is the respect with which Samuel, a four-time Pro-Bowler with 45 career interceptions, is treated, but also an example of his volubility on the field.
“He’s got great FBI,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith said, as he then explained the initials. “He’s got super football intelligence and I think that’s why you see him making the plays he makes. He understands splits, he understands route combinations and he’s been a guy that’s come in, especially here with the start of training camp where he’s actually getting to go through the whole entire process of how we put things together on the field, that he has a much better understanding of it.”
The Falcons are counting on Samuel, acquired from Philadelphia for the cheap price of a seventh-round pick, to help elevate a pass defense that has proved their Achilles’ heel in Smith’s first four seasons. The addition of Samuel provides the Falcons with their best group of corners – on paper, at least — in Smith’s era.
A recent blog post in The Philadelphia Inquirer indicated that Eagles coach Andy Reid believed Samuel was in “steep decline” – the reporter’s words, not Reid’s. The lingering question remains whether that is the case, as the Eagles showed their prescience in unloading quarterback Donovan McNabb to division rival Washington at a time when McNabb clearly had entered steep decline or whether the Falcons have gotten themselves another useful veteran in the 31-year-old Samuel the same way they did with linebacker Mike Peterson when Peterson was 31 back in 2008.
Clearly, the Falcons believe Samuel can and will be an impact player. As for another knock against him – that Samuel doesn’t play the scheme but freelances to get interceptions – Smith said he doesn’t see it.
“I don’t buy that at all,” he said.
Rather, Smith loves that aspect of Samuel’s game.
“I think the thing Asante does is he attacks the ball when it’s in the air,” Smith said. “He’s very aggressive and I think the younger guys can see that. It’s not always about pass break-ups, it’s about interceptions. We want to get the ball.”
Samuel keeps his sessions with the media rare and brief and much of what he does is a sort of performance art, preening for the cameras. But behind the bluster he also showed some of that “FBI” of which Smith spoke. In his games as an opposing player, Samuel had frequently victimized Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan with interceptions, so when Samuel arrived in Atlanta he gave Ryan some constructive criticism – just as he did with Koetter.
Samuel was asked on Tuesday if he sees a change in Ryan and his insight was fairly detailed.
“Definitely,” he said, “I see when I’m out there he has that quick step — a little quick. He’s trying to throw those quick throws, so he’s definitely working on his mechanics and you definitely see the improvement.”
For now, Samuel has not been starting with the first team in its base defense but he has worked with the first-team nickel defense, alternating the left and right sides with Brent Grimes, a 2010 Pro-Bowler whom the team tagged as its franchise player.
Samuel has said he prefers the left side, as most quarterbacks are right-handed and that’s where the majority of the throws come. Playing the right side on Tuesday against Ryan in 11-on-11 drills, he had a Pick Six – part of his Twitter address – in his grasp, but could not corral it. Samuel said playing both sides is “working good.”
“Just dropped my pick over there,” he said. “Got to get used to that side a little bit, but we’re working on it a little bit every day to get better.”
Then he quipped: “But, you know, made a lot of money over there – the left” side.
Falcons veteran safety Chris Hope, a former member of the Tennessee Titans, said Samuel reminds him a little bit of notorious Titan Adam “Pacman” Jones, at least in the personality department.
“Oh, Asante he’s the real deal,” Hope said. “He’s a funny guy. Kind of reminds me of Pacman a little bit, attitude-wise. Always excited, always screaming out something. Just really enjoy the game. You need those kind of guys around.”
But on a more serious note, Hope said he and Samuel need to mentor some of the Falcons younger defensive backs.
“When you have guys like Asante and myself, older guys that come out and compete every day, it makes it that much easier for a younger guy to strap it up and go hard,” Hope said. “Sometimes people don’t realize to be great you have to put in the hard work and he’s definitely doing it.”
Samuel is part of the changes in the Falcons’ defense in terms of personnel but the bigger changes are coming scheme-wise. New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is bringing his own ideas and as part of that and it remains to be seen whether the Falcons will use Samuel or Grimes or projected nickel corner Dunta Robinson, the starting right corner in the base defense, to match up against specific receivers – a tactic Smith has shied away from in his first four seasons.
“Match-ups are so crucial in the game, especially in your sub package,” Smith said. “You’ve got to be able to at times match up and we’re going to have that flexibility, so we’re going to have multiplicity defensively in terms of where guys are going to line up.”
One thing is for sure: on Oct. 28, Samuel will visit his former team and line up against the Philadelphia Eagles. That game, Samuel said, will show whether or not he is in steep decline.