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Defensive Back a Position of Strength for the Falcons

By Jake Saltzman

The postseason has been anything but kind to the Atlanta Falcons of late. Quarterback Matt Ryan has been on the receiving end of the majority of the blame, as the former number three overall draft pick remains winless (0-3) in the NFL playoffs. Head Coach Mike Smith has also had to deal with critics, as his personal winless-playoff drought dates all the way back to 2001, when Smith was a defensive assistant with the then-reigning Super bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.

What has not been over-analyzed is the fact that in their last three playoff games, the Falcons defense has allowed a combined 88 points, or roughly 30 points a game. Last season, the Falcons gave up 30 or more points only three times en route to the playoffs, and lost two of the three in which they did.

For the defensive issues to be resolved, as is the case with most teams, the Falcons may not have to look to a superstar playmaker on the D-line. This is important, seeing as the Falcons don’t necessarily have one (John Abraham turned 34 earlier this month and failed to record 10 sacks in 2011).

That’s because of the strength of their secondary, which got a much needed boost when the Falcons traded a seventh round pick for Asante Samuel in April. Samuel will record his 50th career regular season interception with even just an average year in 2012, which is an area last year’s bunch struggled in mightily for Atlanta. Thomas DeCoud led the club with interceptions, but had only four.

The biggest strength of the Falcons’ secondary this season however projects to be its depth. Joining Samuel and DeCoud are Brent Grimes, who resigned shortly after declaring free agency, and a healthy William Moore, who missed four games in the middle of last season and was irrelevant in the playoffs. Cornerback Dunta Robinson may enter training camp as an overlooked man after failing to record 50 tackles for the first time in a full season, but would not be a major downgrade at all should Samuel not pan out. Still, it was clear Samuel wanted out of Philadelphia, and after being traded for a single seventh rounder, one would think the former league interception leader would have something left to prove moving forward.

Also worth mentioning are the reserves. Dominique Franks and Chris Owens both saw time in Atlanta’s rotation last season at cornerback, with Franks intercepting two passes and Owens showing good ability to reach the opponent backfield on disguised blitzes.

Shann Schillinger enters his third season with Atlanta, and despite playing primarily on special teams has proven to be a nice sixth-round find for the Falcons. Schillinger is one of the faster guys in what is not an ultra-quick secondary, and the Falcons could have used that speed on several occasions last season. Never was Atlanta’s lack of speed more evident last season than against Minnesota in week 12. In what proved to be a narrow Atlanta win, Christian Ponder and Percy Harvin connected for a 39 yard TD pass that saw Atlanta blow big-time coverage, allowing a pair of linebackers to mark Harvin. The Falcons also used a later-round draft pick this year on Charles Mitchell, another speedy youngster who can play both corner and safety.

Ultimately, the Falcons defense was probably misrepresented by its middle of the pack overall ranking last season. To make the numbers match up in 2012, I expect the Falcons will utilize the unconventional approach of building up from the secondary. With Brent Grimes and Asante Samuel poised for a bounce back year, this approach may land the Falcons in position to win a playoff game for the first time since 2004.

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