Falcons' DeCoud closing the gap to greatness

BY foxsports • September 28, 2012

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Tony Gonzalez knew immediately that he’d have something in common with Thomas DeCoud when he joined the Atlanta Falcons in 2009.

The future hall-of-fame tight end and the young safety might be almost 10 years apart in age, but both are California natives and both attended the University of California-Berkeley. Gonzalez knows Jeff Tedford, the coach for whom DeCoud played, and he soon learned that they shared an appreciation of local hangouts and Bay Area music.

“He’s Berkeley through and through,” Gonzalez said.

On the field, Gonzalez saw this “fast, big, strong smart guy” and wondered to himself why DeCoud – good as he was – wasn’t even better. Three games into this season, Gonzalez is seeing it all click for his fellow Cal alum.

“He’s always been this far away — two or three inches from making the big play,” Gonzalez said, holding his fingers apart to illustrate, “or the ball’s in his hands and he didn’t catch it. This year, he’s closed that gap, and now he’s making those plays and he’s doing what he’s always been capable of doing and it does that — that’s player evolution.”

Gonzalez said DeCoud is now “owning” his position and has realized he can be one of the best players in the league.

“I think Thomas has always had that ability,” Gonzalez said, “but he’s closed that gap this year.”

Through three games, one of the biggest surprises on the 3-0 Falcons is the team’s NFL-best plus-10 turnover margin, and DeCoud, 27 and in his fifth year, is a major reason why. In his past two games, he has three interceptions, second best in the league, and a fumble recovery. He also had three passes defended in last week’s 27-3 win over San Diego.

DeCoud began to show inklings that he would take to new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s system in the preseason when he had an interception and a forced fumble. While it’s early, if he continues this play, he’s a likely contender for his first Pro-Bowl appearance.

Falcons secondary coach Tim Lewis said DeCoud is undergoing a natural maturation process, which Nolan’s scheme has helped along.

“His strength, his endurance, his change of direction abilities that have been enhanced by our strength and conditioning program have allowed him to do some things,” Lewis said. “His ball skills have improved. Over the course of time the angles he takes to make those plays, his awareness and understanding of the NFL game is growing and allowing him to do some things, and the plays are just starting to come to him.”

While the Falcons’ offense is scoring in a big way so far this season, the team’s most acute shortcoming in the past has proved its pass defense — which has never finished above 20th in the league during head coach Mike Smith’s tenure. If DeCoud and company continue on their path, the Falcons could go a long way towards fixing that area, which, in some ways, has contributed to the team’s inability to win a playoff game in three tries over the past four seasons.

FOX broadcaster John Lynch, a nine-time Pro-Bowl safety during his 16-season NFL career, said DeCoud has “taken the next step,” something that Lynch said he himself did around his fourth season. Because the position of safety is complex and loaded with responsibility in terms of making calls, teams rarely play safeties as rookies, often slowly working them in to educate them.

“He just seems incredibly comfortable in this system that Mike Nolan’s teaching,” Lynch said. “I think Mike’s giving these guys more latitude in terms of their ability to disguise things and muddy things for opposing quarterbacks, and I think it’s a great testament to those safeties” — including William Moore who has two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery — “because safeties are always at the heart of a disguise. Quarterbacks are looking at them to tell them to tell the picture."

“I just got done watching them play Denver and San Diego and you’re talking Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, guys who don’t confuse easily, and I think I saw confusion with both of them, and on top of confusion, one thing this league’s about is making plays, and both William Moore and Thomas have been making a ton of plays and have been instrumental in the way this defense’s playing.”

DeCoud agreed that things are coming together for him. He said as a young player — he was a third-round pick in 2008 and started full-time the following season — offenses often try to trick safeties. Now, the shoe — or Air Jordan, in DeCoud’s case — is on the other foot.

“They expect you not to have seen a lot of stuff,” said DeCoud, a noted Nike aficionado who often tweets photos of his latest kicks and recounted this week how at his wedding this summer he and his groomsmen wore Air Jordans, each of which signified a special meaning to DeCoud. “I think that’s paid dividends for both William and I, being his fourth year, my fifth year. We’ve seen a lot of stuff and we’re both — I don’t want to toot our own horn — but we’re two good, athletic safeties that can hit and go get the ball, so once we’ve seen a lot of stuff we’re less susceptible to be tricked, and now we can make a lot more plays.”

DeCoud said that with Nolan’s disguises, he and Moore have seen opposing quarterbacks get “rattled.”

“I think we’ve got something good going,” he said. “We’ve just got to be able to stay consistent with it.”

The change to Nolan from Brian VanGorder, the defensive coordinator in DeCoud’s first four seasons who left after last season to assume the same position at Auburn University, is a big one for the players both in scheme and in tone.

Lynch and others have taken to calling what Nolan is doing an “amoeba” defense. In obvious passing situations, six defenders or more might be grouped together standing up so the offense has no idea what they will do. DeCoud said in the past, the safeties were “a lot more stagnant in our pass scheme.”

“There wasn’t too much movement around or disguising of any sort, really,” he said.

In terms of communication styles, DeCoud also has appeared to benefit from the change. VanGorder, who has spent much of his career in college, is something of a yeller. DeCoud has said he was taken aback in his first practice with Nolan when he didn’t hear any yelling.

“I played for Jon Gruden, I played for Tony Dungy — they were both very different in how they reached players, but ultimately there’s got to be a respect factor that ‘this guy can help me get better, get where I want to get,’” Lynch said, “and, ultimately, he better have some depth behind what he’s teaching. It can’t just be the way he communicates. ‘This will help you make plays, if you do this.’ They earn the respect of players that way, and it’s pretty clear that’s going on in Atlanta right now.”

It’s also possible that, at least last season, DeCoud was not so sure of his standing on the team. After the final preseason game, the Falcons signed veteran James Sanders, who was cut by New England. Smith said that resulted in fewer practice snaps for DeCoud and Moore. Smith said that that could have affected DeCoud’s grasp on the game plan in a given week, but neither he nor Lewis said they think it affected DeCoud’s confidence.

DeCoud started all 16 games in ’08 and ’09, but 15 last season. After losing 30-12 in the opener, he did not start in Week 2.

“He does (seem more comfortable), him, William, our secondary guys,” linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “They’re not walking on eggshells. They’re back there comfortable, playing their game. . . .

“It was a little different around here (last season). I think they like the way things are going now. They’re comfortable in Mike’s system, and they just want to keep getting better. I’m pretty sure those guys will both be in Hawaii at the end of the year.”

Hawaii — or Berkeley — those would seem like welcoming surroundings for DeCoud, a relaxed sort who marches to the beat of his own drummer with elaborate tattoos and, at times, odd hairdos. He does a spot-on impersonation of VanGorder and can liven up the practice sideline with off-beat conversation.

Whereas in the past, he might have been guilty of mental mistakes on the field, now he seems locked in. The Falcons’ coaching staff will need to keep DeCoud and the rest with that mindset so that they don’t begin to buy into their own hype.

“That’s all hopeful and wishful thinking,” DeCoud said of Pro Bowl talk. “We have 13 more weeks to play for. Like I said, you can get humbled real fast.”

Nonetheless, DeCoud looks like he has arrived.