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Franks struggles lead to nickel concerns

August 20th, 2011 Comments off
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Dominique Franks

Dominique Franks did not have an impressive outing against the Jacksonville Jaguars last night. While Chris Owens got the start in place of an injured Dunta Robinson at right corner, Franks got his opportunity to work with the first team as the nickel/slot corner. He proceeded to have a night where he was picked on several times.

In re-watching the game this morning, I paid close attention to Franks, tracking how many receptions he gave up in the game. In the end, Franks was targeted 9 times by Jacksonville passers, and they were successful in completing 8 passes against him. Those plays went for a total of 87 yards, with Franks having no pass breakups in coverage. For those unable to do the math, that means Jacksonville passers had a passer rating of 106.9 against Franks. The lone incompletion against Franks came on an overthrow by Blaine Gabbert to Jason Hill along the sideline. Franks also missed two tackles in the open field, which allowed guys like Cecil Shorts and Tiquan Underwood to get significant yards after the catch.

If there is a positive for Franks from last night, he did show some things as a blitzer off the corner. He rushed the quarterback three times. The first time he managed to hit David Garrard, although Garrard still completed a pass. A second time, he was able to jump to deflect a pass leading to an incompletion. A third time, his pressure forced an errant throw by Gabbert.

One of the strengths of Brian Williams, last year’s nickel back, was his ability to be an effective blitzer. Thus far, there doesn’t seem to be a huge dropoff from Williams to Franks. But despite positives there, as well as on special teams where Franks almost blocked Josh Scobee’s third field goal of the night, he still seems to be a work in progress in coverage.

Franks looked to be ahead of Owens in their competition for the open nickel spot after a disappointing preseason for the latter against the Dolphins. Owens did not have a great night against the Jaguars, and gave up receptions of his own in the second half. But for the most part in the first half when he was working with the starters on the outside, he was capable. He broke up a pass, made some stops in run support, and even forced a fumble.

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Camp Battles 2011: Cornerbacks

July 16th, 2011 Comments off

It has been rumored that the Falcons might pursue a free agent corner on the open market, but it would appear that only a low-level signing is in the books as the team wants to stress fiscal responsibility.

But that won’t mean that there won’t be significant competition at this position during camp. As the team will be primarily looking for someone to step up and fill the void at nickel cornerback.

That role is likely to be held by Chris Owens. He entered last year as the nickel corner, but after a dismal mid-season performance against the Bengals last year as an injury replacement for injured starter Dunta Robinson, he was benched and veteran Brian Williams took over. Williams is a free agent, and previous reports indicate that the Falcons will likely decline to bring him back. That leaves Owens as the front-runner for the job going into this summer.

He’ll be pushed by Dominique Franks, who earned limited playing time a year ago as a rookie. Franks has a chance to unseat Owens, but due to his lack of experience playing in the slot, it’s probably Owens job to lose.

It’s possible that the Falcons could go after a veteran free agent to hold the spot, but that would only happen if the right price comes along.

Both starters are locked in, with Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes coming off solid years. Those four players are virtual shoe-ins to make the roster, leaving the possibility of a fifth player. If Williams is not retained, that spot will default to Rafael Priest the only other corner on the roster. But it seems certain that if not via veteran free agency, certainly undrafted free agency the Falcons will add some players that can push him for that spot. If the Falcons do not like how that open competition goes, then the possibility that Williams is signed at or near the end of camp increases.

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Will the real Chris Owens stand up?

June 6th, 2011 Comments off
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Chris Owens

A little more than ten months ago, a lot of expectations were heaped onto cornerback Chris Owens. And Owens failed to live up to those expectations in 2010.

Last summer, Owens was expected to compete for a starting job, but Brent Grimes did not relent and did not look back. While Owens struggled, Grimes flourished as a starter and made his first Pro Bowl. Owens began the season as the team’s nickel back and slot corner, but he did not play at a particularly high level through the first six weeks of the season. Then with Dunta Robinson out in Week 7 due to a concussion, Owens was thrust into the spotlight as a starter. And he had one of the poorest performances from a Falcons corner in recent memory. So bad that it made Tye Hill and Chris Houston’s heads spin. And it did not go unnoticed by the coaching staff, as Owens was benched in favor of the declining veteran Brian Williams. But with Williams out against the Packers in the playoffs, Owens was again thrust back into the spotlight, and he once again came up wanting.

This summer, Owens is the incumbent at the nickel spot with Williams not expected to be re-signed. The team did not add a cornerback in the draft, and doing so in free agency does not look quite so promising given the current state of the labor situation. Owens won’t be handed the job, as he’s expected to be pushed by last year’s fifth round pick Dominique Franks.

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Finneran and Williams won’t be back

March 1st, 2011 Comments off
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Brian Finneran

Alex Marvez of FOX Sports reports that the Falcons have informed two impending free agents wide receiver Brian Finneran and cornerback Brian Williams that they will not be re-signed.

Both players had their contracts expire at the end of the season. Free agency is supposed to begin on Friday on March 4, but will be delayed, if not outright cancelled if the league and the players union cannot come to a new agreement in regards to the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Finneran, is behind current center Todd McClure in terms of currently longest tenured Falcon. He first joined the Falcons in December 1999, when he was signed to their practice squad, after appearing in 3 games earlier that season with the Philadelphia Eagles. By the 2002 season, he had ascended to being a starter on the team and their leading receiver. Knee injuries cost him both the 2006 and 2007 seasons, but when Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff took over in 2008, they brought him back. This past year, Finneran caught 19 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns. All in all, Finneran played 9 seasons with the Falcons, starting 38 of 126 appearances with 236 catches for 3072 yards and 19 touchdowns in that span.

Williams first joined the team just before the start of the 2009 season, as the Falcons sought to shore up their weak cornerback position. Williams managed to start the first five games before an ACL tear cost him the rest of the season. He came back this past year, and managed to shore up the nickel cornerback position after early struggles from Chris Owens in that role. In two seasons combined with the Falcons, Williams managed to start 6 of 21 games, recording 49 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception, and recovering two fumbles. Williams originally entered the league as a fourth round pick in 2002 by the Minnesota Vikings, before joining the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2006, where he first played under coach Smith.

The combined loss of these two veterans likely leads the Falcons to try and address their depth at both positions in April’s draft, if not sooner if a CBA can be worked out.

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Owens could be tested vs. Packers

January 14th, 2011 Comments off

Falcons cornerback Brian Williams was listed as doubtful for tomorrow evening’s playoff matchup against the Green Bay Packers. Williams missed the entire week of practice due to a knee injury and very likely will miss the game. In Williams likely absence, Chris Owens will likely get the majority of reps at nickel cornerback. Owens last extensive playing time came in a Week 7 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals, in which he started for an absent Dunta Robinson. Owens struggled mightily in that game. For the first five games of the season, Owens served as the team’s nickel corner, but following his struggles against the Bengals got very limited playing time on defense being relegated primarily to special teams. Owens could see many matchups in the slot against top Packers wideouts Donald Driver and/or Greg Jennings. Traditionally, Driver has manned that role in the past, but late in the season the team began to work Jennings into the role more extensively. Jennings was the team’s leading receiver this year with 76 receptions, 1,265 yards, and 12 touchdowns earning a Pro Bowl bid.

Williams was joined by several other Falcon players on the injury report, all of whom were listed as questionable. All of those players however were able to fully participate in Friday’s practices, giving optimism that all will suit up on Saturday despite their status.

Among them were: defensive end John Abraham (groin), defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (shoulder), safety Thomas DeCoud (ankle), linebacker Curtis Lofton (knee), center Todd McClure (ankle), and wide receiver Roddy White (knee). All except McClure, were limited in practices on Wednesday and Thursday. McClure had a full participation on Thursday.

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What to do if Robinson isn’t back

November 2nd, 2010 Comments off

In light of Monday’s report that Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson hasn’t been cleared to practice yet even after a week off during the team’s bye, I think the Falcons might have to make some adjustments at the cornerback position if he’s out another week.

I am a Chris Owens fan, and during the summer was high on his ability and potential to be a starter for this team this season. But against the Bengals he really struggled, and the truth is had one of the worst games of a Falcon corner in a long time. It made some of the usual weekly performances of Jason Webster, Chris Houston, and Allen Rossum look very good by contrast. And while I think this would be a good test for Owens this week to see how well he bounces back from such a performance which would be a great indicator of his future, at the same time it would at least have a backup plan in case he doesn’t bounce back.

So my suggestion is to perhaps move Brian Williams to the outside in nickel situations. Against the Bengals, Williams covered the slot and Owens the outside receiver in nickel situations, but I think that needs to be reversed. When Robinson was healthy, Owens played the slot in nickel situations. I think that is potentially a better matchup for us against the Bucs, with Owens going up against Sammie Stroughter in the slot, and Williams facing whoever is lined up outside for the Bucs (Arrelious Benn?).

Now this could all be moot if Robinson comes back to practice tomorrow and the next few days and is ready to go. But I think the Falcons should at least prepare this week for the possibility that if Owens gets off to a slow start versus the Bucs, it may be time to make a switcheroo at cornerback.

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Falcons hope to get healthier next week vs. Dolphins

August 20th, 2010 Comments off

D. Orlando Ledbetter of the AJC reports that the Falcons expect several players to return to action in next week’s preseason game against the Miami Dolphins after missing some time. Among them are safety William Moore, cornerback Dunta Robinson, defensive tackle Peria Jerry, cornerback Brian Williams, and running back Jerious Norwood.

All five players have yet to suit up for a game this preseason. Typically, the third preseason game is the one in which the team’s starters get the majority of their playing time. And Robinson and Jerry are expected to hold down starting positions this season. Head coach Mike Smith indicated in his post-game press conference that the team had been targeting most of the injured players to return for this third preseason game from the start.

Moore has missed time by re-aggravating a groin injury he suffered in the spring. The former second round pick has seen very little action to date for the team in the past two seasons.

Robinson was held out last week with a hamstring injury, although he indicated in a television interview that he could have played had it been a regular season game. The team erred on the side of caution to allow the injury to heal.

Jerry still has lingering issues from the knee injury he suffered in September of last season and has been limited in practice since training camp began at the end of July. Williams is in the same boat.

Norwood too has been limited for most of camp with a hip flexor.

The Falcons were able to get wide receiver Harry Douglas and safety Matt Giordano back from injury for last night’s preseason game. Douglas (knee) and Giordano (groin) were held out of the Chiefs games. Douglas responded with a pair of receptions for 13 yards. It was his first action since 2008, after missing all of the 2009 season with a knee injury. Giordano had two tackles in his first action in a Falcon uniform.

Chris Owens: Why He’ll Start in 2010

July 30th, 2010 Comments off
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Chris Owens

First off, let me point out ATLJBO’s excellent highlight video of Chris Owens on YouTube. Because this was what first put the nugget in my head that Owens would win the competition this year at cornerback. What probably stands out to you as you finish the clip, is how good Owens was against the run last year. He made several big hits and good tackles there. I also noticed this in the final weeks of the season when I was recently reviewing games for Moneyball.

This shouldn’t be underestimated. Over the years, tackling has become a lost art among cornerbacks and defensive backs in general. To the point that if and when you come across a corner that does it well, it makes him stand out. This is one of the reasons why the Falcons brass have been so keen on Dunta Robinson over the years.

I also noticed that the times when Owens was beat in coverage, it was largely due to poor footwork and sloppy technique. I believe that new assistant secondary coach Tim Lewis was indicating this when he was interviewed by the AJC back in February and talked specifically about improving these things. If Lewis is successful at getting these corners to improve their technique and footwork, then Owens stands to potentially benefit the most.

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Three are medically cleared to practice

July 27th, 2010 Comments off

D. Orlando Ledbetter of the AJC reports that Falcons head coach Mike Smith indicated that three players returning from season-ending knee injuries in 2009, are all medically cleared to practice once the Falcons begin training camp practices on Friday, July 30. Those three players are Harry Douglas, Peria Jerry, and Brian Williams.

According to Smith, all three will be brought along slowly and be limited to one practice a day. The Falcons will open camp with five days of a two-a-day practices. Ledbetter writes that there were notions that all three players could begin camp on the Physically-Unable-to-Perform (PUP) list, indicating their inability to practice.

Douglas suffered a torn ACL during the first week of training camp last summer. Jerry went down with his injury in the second game of the regular season, and Williams in the fifth. Williams also tore his ACL, but the specific details Jerry’s injury has never been disclosed by team officials. According to some sources, it may have been bone related.

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Camp Battles ’10: Cornerback

July 24th, 2010 Comments off
Dunta Robinson

Dunta Robinson

The cornerback position may face the most competition of any unit on the roster from top to bottom.

Essentially the only player that is assured a roster spot is free agent pickup Dunta Robinson. Robinson was the Falcons most major addition to the roster this off-season. Solid preseason play from this position has been a rarity since Mike Smith took over, and the Falcons hope Robinson can help reverse that.

The other starting position will face heavy competition. Brian Williams is the incumbent, re-signed to a one-year contract, but is coming off a knee injury. Williams had already lost a step before the injury, and it remains to be seen if he still has enough in the tank to hold off the youth the Falcons have at the position.

His chief competition should come from Brent Grimes and/or Chris Owens. Grimes played well in the nickel role last season, and was a playmaker late in the year as a starter. Owens didn’t get a ton of playing time until the last month or so of the season, but showed promise. It would appear the team would prefer having one of them manning the other outside spot opposite Robinson.

Williams was utilized as a slot corner last year, and he it remains to be seen if either Owens or Grimes will get opportunities there as well. Last year when WIlliams went down, that position was manned by Chevis Jackson. Jackson had a disappointing sophomore year, but the coaches hope he can bounce back with a strong summer. Because of his experience playing in the slot, he has a legit chance of earning the nickel back position.

Pushing Jackson will be rookie Dominique Franks. A fifth round pick, Franks probably won’t be counted on to make a big impact as a rookie. He will have a chance to push for a reserve role, but more than likely the Falcons will utilize him on special teams at least early on. But a strong summer from Franks could spell and end to Willaims or Jackson’s Falcon career.

The other corner on the roster is Daylan Walker, an undrafted rookie. It’s also possible that fellow rookie Gabe Derricks may get opportunities here as well, despite being listed as a safety. Both players are long shots to make the roster, and essentially will need strong preseason performance to make the practice squad.

The Falcons will certainly keep five corners, but may opt to go for six, especially if Williams and Jackson show enough to merit being kept around.