The Falcons biggest off-season addition is cornerback Asante Samuel. The Falcons got Samuel at a bargain and potential steal if he performs up to his abilities, making him one of the key players for 2012.
Samuel’s impact and ability to perform with this team this year will work in heavy conjunction with previously mentioned Dunta Robinson. Samuel is expected to play on the outside while Robinson moves to the slot in nickel situations. That gives the Falcons a potentially potent trio of corners along with Brent Grimes also working into the unit. If all three players can perform up to their talent level, the Falcons could potentially field the league’s three best corners giving them a clear edge when it comes to lining up against the potent spread passing attacks that are numerous in the league today.
Samuel is considered one of the league’s premier corners. And while the Falcons have gotten excellent production from Brent Grimes the past two years, Samuel’s play has been at a higher level. Samuel is essentially a better version of Grimes. Like Grimes, he doesn’t have great size, and is not the most physical player. He has been criticized in the past for being too reluctant to contribute in run support. But where Samuel more than makes up for it is his ability to make plays on the pass and help tilt the field defensively.
According to Pro Football Focus, over the past two seasons Samuel has only allowed 47.1% completions on passes targeted against him, a mark that is sixth among corners. Grimes is not far behind with a completion rate of 48.6%, a mark ranked eighth in the league. But unlike Grimes, Samuel has been one of the least targeted corners in that span, only ranking behind Nnamdi Asomugha in terms of how many times he is thrown at per snap in coverage. Quarterbacks tend to avoid Samuel because they fear his playmaking ability.
Samuel has twice led the league in interceptions over the past six seasons, and has the most total interceptions in the league in that span, with a total of 39, an average of over six per season. Samuel likes to bait quarterbacks into throwing his way, then break on the ball to either pick it off or break up the pass. As mentioned before, most quarterbacks have learned the lesson and tend to avoid Samuel altogether. That trend is expected to continue in Atlanta, which will open more opportunities for a player like Grimes to get more action on the opposite side of the field. Grimes went from one of the league’s most targeted players in the league in 2010 to one of its least in 2011, mainly because passers feared his playmaking skills (5 picks in 2010) too. With Samuel doing his thing, it should give Grimes more opportunities to make big plays.
But there is also the potential that Dunta Robinson sees more work in the slot as well, which has been a weakness of this defense over the past several seasons. And if Robinson is not able to handle that higher workload, then whatever benefits Samuel brings are negated by the costs due to Robinson.
Another issue as mentioned earlier is Samuel’s lackluster performance in run support. If the Falcons play a lot of nickel, it is imperative that corners are able to pull their weight in run support because there is one less linebacker on the field. Samuel has routinely been among the league’s worst and least effective run defenders and tacklers over the years. One of the reasons why Samuel has been less than stellar there is because of so much of his energy is put into coverage and making plays there.
One way the Falcons can mitigate this issue is by bringing Samuel off the bench. This was the method in which the Falcons handled their cornerback rotation in 2009 with Grimes coming off the bench and playing on the outside, and the team sliding starter Brian Williams into the slot. They can do the same this year, with Samuels coming off the bench to play outside, Robinson sliding into the slot, and Grimes manning the other outside spot. That way, the team could keep their two superior run defending corners on the field on the majority of run downs and then in obvious passing situations which precipitate the nickel, Samuel can come in and not have to worry as much about his run-stopping deficiency.
The only way all of this can work with Samuel in the mix is if there is no drop-off in his play that could potentially come from adjusting to a new city, locker room, and scheme. Samuel has to be ostensibly the player he has been for the past five or six years which is a dynamic ballhawk. He along with Robinson are the lynchpins to the Falcons improved secondary play and pass defense. His ability to give them a few extra seconds of tight coverage will give the pass rushers more time to get to the quarterback, which has been critically deficient in the Falcons bigger games over the past few years. His ability to be left on an island against quality receivers frees up Mike Nolan to mix up and be more aggressive with his blitz packages, potentially bringing the safeties up for more blitzes, something he did with great effect in previous stops. As mentioned earlier, his presence on one side of the field tilts it towards the other corners, putting them in better position to make impact plays. And it of course gives the Falcons a third corner that is no longer easy prey for quarterbacks like has been the case in recent seasons.
He potentially is the key catalyst to giving the Falcons one of the league’s top defenses, particularly when it comes to pass defense. And if the Falcons 2012 pass defense is good enough to stop or significantly slow down some of the league’s better passing attacks, then it gives them a huge advantage in trying to make a deep playoff run next January if the offense is up to snuff.