When the Falcons traded for Asante Samuel in a pre-draft deal in April, it was a move that was widely overlooked outside of Philadelphia and Atlanta. The addition is a move that should put the rest of the league, especially the NFC South, on notice.
Not only is Samuel being brought in to play under new defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan, he’s playing alongside former Pro-Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes and former first-round pick Dunta Robinson.
All this combined allows for a few new wrinkles.
The addition of Samuel will allow the Falcons to play more press coverage, unlike the soft zones of before. Atlanta struggled on third down last season. A good part of those struggles came not only from play calling, but the personnel.
As good of a corner as Robinson is, he hasn’t lived up to expectations. That is in part because he was playing out of his natural position on the inside, covering the slot receiver. With Robinson getting back to the slot, it will play to not only his strengths, but the defense’s strength as a whole.
For example, take the Green Bay Packers. The Falcons now can have the Pro Bowler Grimes on Greg Jennings, Pro Bowler Samuel on Donald Driver and Robinson on Jordy Nelson, all while playing more press coverage. No more picking on the Falcons’ third best cornerback.
Samuel entering the picture should, in theory, help the Falcons contain receivers a little longer. Better coverage equals longer time for the defensive line and linebacker corps to reach the quarterback. More time to pressure the quarterback is more time for Nolan to execute more elaborate blitz packages.
Along with what the addition means for the Falcons defensively, it also helps on the offensive side of the ball. At times last season, it felt as if Matt Ryan and the offense had to score when they had the ball because of defensive woes on third down.
In the playoff loss to the Giants, the Falcons allowed New York to convert on 53 percent, (8 of 15) of its third downs while Atlanta’s offense only converted on a little more than 28 percent (4 of 14) of theirs. Samuel should help boost third-down play and help the offense win the battle of field position. Those two things will take the pressure off the offense so it can raise its third-down conversion rate.
Head coach Mike Smith’s fourth-down call during last season’s Week 10 game against the New Orleans Saints would not have had to happen if the coaching staff had reason to believe the defense could get off the field. With Samuel on the field helping on third downs, the next time the Falcons are in that situation, they can punt the ball away confident that the defense will prevail.
Last season, Atlanta ranked in the top 10 in rush defense but 20th in pass defense. It’s clear what the Falcons’ weakness is on defense. Or, quite possibly, what its’ weakness was.
In the playoff game against Green Bay in 2011, the Falcons allowed Aaron Rodgers to pass for 366 yards. Last season against the Giants, the Falcons allowed Eli Manning to pass for 270 yards. What it boils down to for Atlanta is stopping the opposing team’s passing attack and adding Samuel will help them accomplish that mission.
The NFL is a pass-first league. If the Falcons can keep up their stellar play against the run and allow Samuel to impact the game like he has done in the past, the Falcons could be set to take off in the playoffs.