2012 Key Player: Dunta Robinson
Robinson’s performance in 2012 will be counted on as being one of the Falcons’ keys for success. Like his defensive counterpart Ray Edwards, Robinson’s 2011 season was disappointing. Robinson did have his positive moments, but too often last year they seemed to be weighed down by negative ones.
With the team’s addition of Asante Samuel, expectations are high for the Falcons secondary this year. With that addition and the team placing the franchise tag on Brent Grimes, Robinson is largely a forgotten man in the defensive backfield. Robinson is expected to move inside in nickel situations, a role he played with the Houston Texans prior to coming to Atlanta. New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will be looking to take advantage of having three skilled starting corners on the field to potentially give the Falcons a stronger pass defense.
But much of that rests on exactly how well Robinson plays on the inside. The Falcons nickel corner spot has been a problem area for the team throughout Mike Smith’s tenure. In 2008, Chevis Jackson played the role fairly well. But in 2009, he took a major step back and the team was forced to sign and plug in Brian Williams. Williams got hurt early on, and Jackson resumed his mediocrity for the remainder of the season. In 2010, the team signed Robinson and hoped that Chris Owens’ move inside would fix the problem. That did not prove to be the case, and the team inserted Williams once again, who was middling. Last summer, Owens and now Dominique Franks vied for the position. But both struggled in camp, and the team then signed Kelvin Hayden. Hayden was an improvement, but still was nothing special in the role. He then went down with injury midway through the season, and the team was forced to turn to Franks, who also looked miscast in the role.
If Robinson can step up and give the team strong production in the slot, then it will be a huge boost to the Falcons defense. Over the years, the Falcons have struggled to cover the middle of the field due to coverage issues at nickel corner, linebacker, and safety. If Robinson can pull his weight, that’s one less issue the Falcons will have to try and solve.
The last time Robinson played predominantly inside was in 2008 with the Texans. That year, he ranked sixth best and tenth best in terms of yards per attempt and completion percentage allowed, respectively among slot corners that played at least 100 snaps there (per ProFootballFocus.com). With that potential level of production, coupled with Grimes and Samuel playing at their typical levels, it could give the Falcons the premier secondary in the league as far as corners go. It would allow Nolan to trust his corners on islands against almost any group of receivers, and thus make his blitzes much more effective.
The Falcons will need Robinson to have a strong year in the slot because he’ll be facing his fair share of top slot receivers. Marques Colston, Victor Cruz, Miles Austin, Steve Smith, and Santana Moss are some of the more explosive and better matchups he could draw inside this season.
Robinson also should have a fire lit under him to perform due to the acquisition of Samuel. Robinson was very inconsistent last year, particularly in the area of run support, an area that was considered his major strength beforehand. If he is to play in the nickel, he will essentially be functioning as the team’s third linebacker in a lot of ways, and his tackling will need to improve. If he cannot perform at a high level, then he might get relegated to the team’s third corner, losing his starting spot to Samuel and be forced to come off the bench. Robinson never had to worry about his starting job since coming to Atlanta, but with the increased emphasis that will be placed on competition in camp, he will this summer.
If Robinson does manage to pull his weight, then you can expect Nolan to try and take advantage and play a lot of nickel. So essentially it may not matter that much whoever manages to win the starting spots between him, Samuel, and Grimes because all three will be de facto starters based upon their playing time and reps. That also can be exploited by Nolan in presenting a variety of blitzes to confuse offenses.
How well Robinson fairs in the slot remains to be seen. His skillset, which is predominantly as a “matchup corner” is not typically conducive to being a great slot corner. Robinson lacks great footwork and technique, as they tend to get a bit to sloppy. He also doesn’t possess the best ball skills or awareness in coverage as well. In Houston, these issues and flaws were often mitigated by playing him in a lot of press coverage as a bump and run guy. By allowing him to put his hands on a receiver and redirecting him to where he wanted to go, his lacking footwork, technique, and ball skills became less of an issue. The Falcons rarely used press coverage under Brian VanGorder. While playing a lot more off and zone looks suits the skillset of Grimes and Samuel just fine, it does not work well with Robinson. Nolan will need to try and take advantage and mitigate this disparity between the three players. The 3-4 defenses that Nolan has grown accustomed to and utilized over the past decade typically prefer press man corners like Robinson. So Nolan’s arrival should suit Robinson and make him a better match for the scheme.
However working against Robinson is the reputations earned by Samuel and Grimes in recent years. The two are considered two of the better ball-hawks in the league. Robinson struggled at times when teams went after him due to Grimes improved reputation around the league last year. When Grimes went down with injury late in the season, it probably wasn’t a coincidence that Robinson’s play saw an uptick as team’s started to target the less proven Franks and Owens. Samuel’s presence only potentially makes that worse as he is one of the more feared ball-hawks in the league and can stake a claim alongside players such as Darrelle Revis, Charles Woodson, Champ Bailey, and Nnamdi Asomugha as one of the elite corners in the league over the past five or so years. That could mean a lot more passes in Robinson’s direction if opposing offenses are looking for someone to pick on. So he’ll be tested early and often until he can prove he isn’t worth picking on.
Robinson needs a strong, bounce-back year in 2012. They already have his potential replacement in Samuel in the fold if need be, and they’ll need him to start living up to that lofty contract they paid him two years ago. His versatility and potential to shore up what has been a problem area for a number of years could be exactly what does it.