FLOWERY BRANCH – There’s a pair of mustard-colored Dickies’ coveralls hanging in the Falcons’ locker room, an ugly oversized jumpsuit that seems more appropriate for a guy who’s tearing down walls or nailing up Sheetrock than a professional athlete who shortly after practice will climb into his Mercedes.
Which I guess is kind of the point.
“DBs come to work,” safety William Moore said Thursday, reading the words he wrote in black marker on the suit after purchasing it in downtown Atlanta. “I used to wear those back at Missouri in the winter. I bought that one here, but it was too big. I was going to bring it back, but then I thought, no, I’ll bring it here. It means something. It’s who we are.”
There are a few discernible differences between this Falcons team and ones of recent seasons. The game plans are less predictable. Matt Ryan is more accurate. Julio Jones — less mortal.
But few areas of this team stand out more than the secondary. It’s an interesting mix of crash (Moore) and flash (Asante Samuel: “I’m just swag-100”).
The Falcons have given up yardage in chunks this season — 365.6 per game, which ranked only 24th in the league). But they ranked fifth in points allowed at 18.7. One reason has been the ability of the defense, particularly the secondary, to make drive-changing, game-changing plays.
This is a group that lost its best starting cornerback, Brent Grimes, to a torn Achilles in the season opener. But that hasn’t seemed to matter.
The Falcons’ defensive backs immediately embraced the schemes of new coordinator Mike Nolan. Cornerback Dunta Robinson calls Nolan “heaven-sent.”
Consider five opposing quarterbacks that the defense has gotten the best of this season: Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Drew Brees and Eli Manning. Their combined totals: two touchdowns, 12 interceptions.
They’ve confused some of the league’s best with disguised coverages. They’ve also have beaten three mobile quarterbacks: Robert Griffin III, Michael Vick and Cam Newton.
So when they face the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday’s playoff game, should rookie Russell Wilson be considered a great threat?
“This guy’s different,” Moore said. “He has the ‘it’ factor. The dude can play some ball, and I’m not gassing him up just because we play him. He makes some plays the average quarterback wouldn’t make. He extends plays with his feet.”
Just guessing here: The feet that caused the Falcons their greatest concern are those of Marshawn Lynch. They likely will be focused on stopping the Seahawks’ running back and letting Wilson try to beat them with his arm.
This is a different crew, both in scheme and attitude. Nolan has given defensive backs far more freedom to rely on their instincts than his predecessor, Brian VanGorder. Coverages have been well-disguised, less vanilla.
“We’re not showing our hand,” safety Thomas DeCoud said. “Last year we were stagnant. We would show people what we were going to do before the snap and then just hoped our execution would be up to par. But this year we’ve been able to disguise some things pretty well. It’s been fun because we also have the freedom [to break away] if we see something.”
Nolan changed the dynamic on paper. Samuel changed the dynamic in the locker room. He won two Super Bowls in New England and played in three, as well as four Pro Bowls. He has no equal on the Falcons in either bling or blab-ability.
“He has a huge hand in our attitude,” DeCoud said. “At the beginning we were like, ‘Oh, he said that? You can say that?’ Everybody has their own way of getting it done. He likes to mess with people’s minds and get them out of their game. More power to him if that’s how you get your job done.”
Moore again: “He has that swagger. I feed off it myself. Sometimes the other team doesn’t respect the humble.”
This isn’t a game-day-only thing. Samuel regularly trash talks in practice, saying, “It keeps me on my game.”
As for the playoffs, Samuel said: “It’s showtime.”
Or work time. In either case, if the Falcons have better results this postseason, the secondary will be a reason why.
The digital jukebox
By Jeff Schultz