I’ve already outlined a few players that could be key players this year including Julio Jones and Steven Jackson on offense. But it’s time to look at one of the players in a key position to perform on defense: cornerback Asante Samuel.
One could make the argument that Samuel was the team’s most valuable player on defense last year. His candidacy is buoyed by the number of game-changing plays he had last year. His pick six against the Oakland Raiders essentially won the Falcons that game. Twice he intercepted quarterbacks on their first passes of the game, against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints as well as Eli Manning and the New York Giants. The latter of which set the tone for what would turn into a 34-point shutout for the defending Super Bowl champions.
Last year, I outlined that Samuel’s dynamic ball skills and ability to be left on an island against quality wideouts would be key factors in why he was a key player. He lived up to those expectations.
But this year, there will be different expectations. A year ago, he was expected to team with veterans in Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes to give the Falcons three top-notch corners for their nickel defense. Grimes went down with an injury in the season-opener and Robert McClain stepped in shortly thereafter to have the best season a Falcons nickel corner has had in recent memory.
This year however, he will be surrounded by youth. McClain is expected to retain his nickel spot, but opposite him will be a pair of rookies no doubt in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. That puts a different pressure on Samuel this year. That pressure is based off consistency.
Despite Samuel’s strong 2012 season, consistent is probably not a word that would first come to mind in describing it. He got off to a bit of a slow start as he was feeling his way in Mike Nolan’s scheme as well as integrating himself with the Falcons other personnel. But over the latter half of the season, he was very good at making plays in coverage as noted above. The stretch between that Week 6 Raider game to the Week 15 Giants game was probably his best, earning $7.00 in terms of Moneyball reviews (his season total was $5.50).
He also is known as a gambler. Despite his game-winning interception against the Raiders noted earlier, on the ensuing drive he gave up a big play that put the Raiders in perfect position to tie the game. He likes to cheat for lack of a better word, and this can create big plays but also give them up. Because if you have Samuel freelancing while 10 other guys are playing their assignment, opposing quarterbacks can occasionally expose it.
But this year, with the Falcons very likely going to be lining up a rookie at right corner, he’ll have to have a more complete season. Teams will be more willing to attack the young players opposite him and he may receive less attention. Last year, Samuel was targeted 77 times (according to Pro Football Focus), compared to the 97 targets thrown at Robinson. But considering that Robinson played in just 69 more coverage snaps than Samuel, in reality on a snap to snap basis the gap was much smaller between the pair. That gap will likely only increase with a rookie lining up opposite him.
But instead of trying to make up for that by gambling more on the fewer opportunities he gets, Samuel needs to do a better job playing within the system. Trufant & Co. are likely to go through some growing pains, and the Falcons can’t have Samuel also be a source of struggles as well. But you can’t try and handcuff Samuel too much. A lot of his success comes from his penchant to gamble, and you have to give him some room to breath, otherwise those big plays won’t happen.
Another area where Samuel can improve is his run defense. Part of the problem last year was due to a nagging shoulder injury that limited him for much of the second half of the season. Again, he still managed to play well in coverage despite it, but there were clearly games where it affected him. A more complete season might include being able to stay healthy for the entire year, which should allow him to be much more effective against the run. Samuel will never be a great run defender, but there were too many times last year where he looked fairly unengaged and only gave perfunctory effort in run support. Hopefully that will change this year and there will be more times where he can make some plays there. Playing with a little more toughness and discipline against the run will signal that Samuel is at least trying to be more consistent.
If Samuel can do many of these things, then the strength of the Falcons 2012 defense (their secondary) should largely remain a strength. The Falcons can’t afford to go backwards in regards to their secondary play, which over the years has been a problem more often than not. The reality is that while William Moore and Thomas DeCoud are coming off their best seasons, Samuel is the only player in the secondary that you can truly trust to have a good performance week in and week out. He’s by far their best defender on the back-end and the only one capable of really putting fear into opposing quarterbacks. And if that is to change for the worse, it could be disastrous for the Falcons secondary. Samuel is the lynchpin for continued defensive improvement in 2013, which the Falcons will need if they hope to achieve their goal of bringing a title to Atlanta.