Atlanta Falcons loaded at defensive back

BY foxsports • May 16, 2012

Ever since Mike Smith took over as head coach of the Falcons in 2008, one problem has remained consistent: the pass defense.

In the past, Smith has said that issues with the pass defense are related to the defense as a whole — the defensive line and linebackers’ needing to provide a pass rush.

However, two of the team’s four most significant acquisitions over the past three off-seasons have come at cornerback, as the Falcons continue to upgrade their talent to try and improve a unit that has not finished above 20th in pass defense in Smith’s four seasons. Incidentally, as relatively stable as Smith’s coaching staffs have been, the Falcons also have had the most turnover at that spot, with Tim Lewis replacing Emmitt Thomas in 2010 as secondary coach and Joe Danna replacing Alvin Thomas this year as defensive backs coach.

Following April’s draft, the Falcons acquired four-time Pro-Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel from Philadelphia for a seventh-round draft pick. On Friday, Lewis met with the media during the team’s rookie camp to address the state of his unit and how the team might deploy Samuel in combination with starting left cornerback Brent Grimes, a Pro-Bowler in 2010 whom the team tagged as its franchise player earlier this year, and Dunta Robinson, the team’s big 2010 acquisition who received a six-year, $57-million contract at the time. Robinson’s contract has since been renegotiated to give the Falcons more cap room.

For now, it seems as if Robinson, the most physical of the trio, will be the nickelback, the cornerback who lines up inside. Lewis said that to his knowledge, neither Grimes nor Samuel have played inside.

“But I do know Dunta Robinson has played the nickel position when he was in Houston and had some success with it,” Lewis said, “so we’re going to take a look at him in there and, of course, the guys who were here last year. Fact of the matter is we’ve got some talent.”

The guys who were here last year are Dominique Franks, who will enter his third season, and Christopher Owens. Lewis said that last year Franks was “serviceable” and that he was “not at all disappointed” with how Franks played when starting nickelback Kelvin Hayden was injured in ‘11. The Falcons did not bring back Hayden this year. Lewis said that Franks has a lot of room to grow.

Nonetheless, with the Falcons investing a sizable amount of cash in Robinson, Grimes (who will earn $10.3 million this season) and Samuel, who renegotiated his deal so that it is for three years and worth $18.5 million, the group will be hard to crack.

“I told them only the defensive backs coach could get in that group,” Lewis joked.

One of the most important story lines of training camp will be which two of those three corners will get the most snaps and how much nickel the Falcons elect to play. Under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, it’s possible that the Falcons will make the nickel their base defense and use one less linebacker. But if they don’t, which corner comes out? Is Robinson used only in nickel situations, which seems the most likely outcome? Or do Grimes or Samuel come out in nickel situations, allowing Robinson to play one of the outside spots?

Robinson, who came from a defense in which he played man-press coverage in Houston to one in Atlanta where he has played more zone and been required to back-pedal more, has received less-than-stellar reviews in his two seasons, so he might be the odd man out.

The goal is for Nolan’s defense to put more pressure on the quarterback up front to help the pass defense and to improve the Falcons’ third-down efficiency. The Falcons were tied for the third-worst third-down efficiency in the NFL last season at 44 percent while Nolan’s Miami defense tied for the seventh-best at 34 percent.

Lewis half-jokingly said that to improve, his unit needs to “cover closer” on third down.

“I think mixing in pressure, zone, man-to-man — those type of things are what coach Nolan brings to the table, the variety,” Lewis said. “You’ll see a completely different package. We’ll be using our athletes in different ways. The ability to keep people off-guard and off-balance is what he’s going to bring that will allow the (defensive end) John Abrahams of the world, allow the Kroy Biermanns of the world (to be effective) and it’s also going to help our secondary — to help our team, to help the Atlanta Falcons.”