Coming off stellar 2013 rookie campaigns, Falcons’ cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford not only showed that they belonged in the NFL, but also that they could become the building blocks or "pillars", as general manager Thomas Dimitroff likes to say, that the team desperately needs going forward. In 2014, the two young cornerbacks will face a "murderer’s row" of wide receivers featuring countless Pro Bowl selections and broken NFL records. "That's what this league is about, going against the best every week,'' said Trufant. "I'm looking forward to it. I didn't even know it was going to be like that, with all those players. So I better be ready for that. But it's just going to make me better. And I'm a competitor. I love the competition. I'm going to be ready.’'
Whether or not Trufant and Alford rise up to the challenge of 2014 will go a long way in determining if they can truly be counted on as cornerstones of the defense going forward. "We've got goals. There's a standard we've got to live up to and we're hungry. We're just looking forward. We can't wait for that first game," said Trufant. "There's always pressure. That just comes with the game, but I believe you create your own pressure. I'm just working as hard as I can and playing for my teammates."
While Trufant and Alford may not yet be household names outside of Atlanta, the talented duo has a chance to put themselves on the national radar with a strong showing in 2014. "We want our names to be out there such as the Seahawks cornerbacks and the other cornerbacks. We want to put ourselves out there and let the league know we’re top-tier cornerbacks in Atlanta, too. Pretty much, we’re going out there competing and trying to show that we’re one of the top duos of corners in the NFL." With the large amount of elite wide receiver talent Trufant and Alford will face this season, the gifted pair of second-year cornerbacks will have more than enough opportunities to make themselves known.
Let’s take a look at some of the toughest match ups Trufant and Alford will face this upcoming season.
Week 1- New Orleans Saints: Marques Colston, Brandin Cooks, and Kenny Stills
Marques Colston has been a thorn in the Falcons’ side for a long time. Catching at least one touchdown against the Falcons for the past three years, Colston always seems to be able to find a hole in Atlanta’s defense. Robert Alford got the best of Colston in Alford’s first career start, intercepting a Drew Brees pass and wrestling the ball away to force the turnover.
As if covering Colston and tight end/wide receiver Jimmy Graham wasn’t challenging enough, the Saints added mid-round gem Kenny Stills in 2013 and Steve Smith clone Brandin Cooks in the 2014 draft. Stills gashed the Falcons for a 67-yard reception in the first game of the 2013 season, and proved to be a reliable target for Falcons’ nemesis Brees throughout the rest of the year. When throwing to Stills, Brees achieved a league-high 139.3 passer rating.
Cooks was seemingly an unstoppable force at times during the 2013 season at Oregon State, amassing an eye-popping 128 catches and 16 touchdowns for the Beavers. Luckily for Falcons’ fans, Cooks admitted that the toughest cornerback he ever faced in college was none other than Desmond Trufant.
The Saints’ offense likes to attack in flurries and will try to catch a defense off guard. Spearheaded by one of the smartest quarterbacks in the league in Brees, Trufant and Alford will need to keep their wits about them and trust their instincts when defending the Saints’ talented wide receiver group.
Week 2- Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green and Marvin Jones
A.J. Green, entering his fourth NFL season, has already been named to three Pro Bowls and two All-Pro selections in his short time in the NFL. The only wide receiver selected before Julio Jones in the 2011 NFL Draft, Green has quickly established himself as a premier wideout by collecting a total of 260 catches, 3,833 yards, 29 touchdowns, and countless highlight-reel grabs; all while missing only one game in his career.
Marvin Jones burst onto the scene in 2013 with an incredible four-touchdown game against the New York Jets, and finished his breakout year with ten total touchdowns and over 700 yards. Playing opposite Green, the 6’2’’, 195-pound Jones has the size and speed to create mismatches against many defensive backs.
Trufant and Alford will have to be at their best against Green and Jones, but if they can prevent the big play and win some jump balls, they should have a successful outing against two of the best young wide receivers in the AFC.
Week 3- Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans
Jackson absolutely terrorized the Falcons in two games against them in 2013. Collecting a total of 20 catches, 303 yards, and three touchdowns in two games, the massive 6’5’’, 230-pound Jackson proved to be unstoppable during stretches against the Falcons. The now departed Asante Samuel could easily be blamed for letting Jackson beat him deep on multiple occasions, but Trufant and Alford still need to prove themselves capable against this division rival.
Mike Evans was the seventh overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and hasn’t caught a single pass in the NFL yet. Regardless of his rookie status, the Falcons need to be very cautious with Evans going forward, as he is very similar in build and style of play to none other than Vincent Jackson. Standing at 6’5’’, 230-pounds, Evans made a name for himself at Texas A&M as Johnny Manziel’s top target. Evans is a polished route-runner with soft hands, and is nearly impossible to beat in jump ball situations.
In order for Trufant and Alford to shut down this imposing duo, they’ll have to rely on their physicality at the line of scrimmage and hand usage to reroute Jackson and Evans, and pray they don’t let the Buccaneers’ receivers get behind them.
Week 6- Chicago Bears: Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery
In what could be the most difficult matchup of the 2014 season, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford will have to try and slow down a duo that combined for an explosive 189 catches, 2,716 yards, and 19 touchdowns in 2013.
Sharing a great chemistry with gunslinging quarterback Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall has been one the toughest wide receivers to defend since entering the league as a 4th-round pick in 2006. A five time Pro Bowler, Marshall holds the NFL record for most catches in a game with 21(!). Another big-bodied target the Falcons will face, the 6’4’’, 230 pound Marshall beats defenders by using his great body positioning, huge wingspan, and fearlessness going across the middle. Marshall isn’t a guy that can be shut down, he’s someone that you can only hope to contain.
Alshon Jeffery had a breakout year in 2013, and he proved to be a dangerous complement to the aforementioned Marshall. Jeffery easily went over 1,000 yards for the season and had two monstrous games in which he topped 200 yards. Jeffery is one of the best young wide receivers in the NFL at just 24 years old, and he’s only going to get better.
If Trufant and Alford hope to slow down this dynamic duo, they’ll have to rely on their developing instincts and not get fooled by the double move. Marshall and Jeffery may prove to be the toughest test of the young corners’ careers; but more than anything, this game will show how far they’ve come, or just how far they have left to go.
Week 8- Detroit Lions: Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate
There isn’t much left to say about Calvin Johnson that hasn’t already been said. "Megatron" is a future Hall of Famer and simply the best wide receiver of his era. Johnson is the ultimate test for any defensive back attempting covering him. Trufant and Alford will have to give everything they have to avoid being burnt to a crisp by the record-breaking receiver.
Golden Tate isn’t anywhere near Johnson’s level of talent, but he is a very solid complement to the All-Pro, and Tate gave the Falcons fits last year in a blowout win while playing for the Seahawks. A free agent signing for the Lions, Tate will look to exploit the Falcons’ young secondary again in 2014, but Trufant and Alford should be much more prepared for the 2014 rematch.
Week 12- Cleveland Browns: Josh Gordon and Andrew Hawkins
Josh Gordon against the Falcons may not happen in 2014 due to a pending suspension he could serve from allegedly failing another drug test. When Gordon is on the field, he can be an elite force; racking up nearly 1,650 yards and averaging almost 19 yards per catch will typically earn a player the "elite" title. Over an incredible four-game stretch, Gordon caught fire and amassed an insane 774 yards- good enough for an entire season for many NFL wide receivers. Playing with below-average talent at quarterback his entire career, Gordon now has the chance to play with Heisman trophy winning quarterback Johnny Manziel, and elevate his play to an even higher level- if he can stay out of trouble, that is.
Andrew Hawkins is somewhat of an unknown player around the league, but anyone who watches his practice tape will see a guy that could break out at any time. Possessing rare agility and crisp route-running ability, Hawkins has everything it takes to become a very dangerous weapon in the slot.
Week 13- Arizona Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd
Larry Fitzgerald is another likely future Hall of Famer the Falcons’ young corners will face in 2014. Known for his elite hands and jump-ball ability, Fitzgerald is still one of the toughest match ups in the league, despite 2014 being his 11th season. In 2013, Fitzgerald caught four passes for 48 yards, and beat the Falcons for a touchdown in a Week 8 win in Arizona. Trufant and Alford will have their hands full with Fitzgerald, but should learn quite a bit from defending the savvy veteran.
Floyd entered the league as a highly regarded 2012 first-round pick of the Cardinals, one that Fitzgerald lobbied for himself, and had the breakout season many Cardinals’ fans were avidly waiting for in 2013. With two 100-yard games, Floyd had about as quiet a 1,000 yard season as possible, but certainly showed the potential to do much more damage in the future. Floyd’s combination of size, speed, and tenacity make him one of the best young receivers Trufant and Alford will face in 2014.
Week 14- Green Bay Packers: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jarrett Boykin, and Davante Adams
The deepest wide receiver corp the Falcons will face in 2014, the entire Atlanta secondary will be pushed to their limits in this Week 14 Monday Night Football matchup. A formidable passing attack featuring quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Packers are extremely hard to slow down when they’re clicking on all cylinders.
With the departures of Greg Jennings and James Jones in recent years, Jordy Nelson is the unquestioned number one target for Rodgers in 2014. Nelson has a knack for the big play, so Trufant and Alford need to watch for the double move and wrap Nelson up before he can slip away for a big gain.
Randall Cobb couldn’t say healthy in 2013, seeing the field in only seven games. But when healthy, Cobb is one of the most electric players in the league. A threat to score from anywhere on the field, Cobb should be approached with caution and needs to be located by Falcons’ defenders at all times.
Jarrett Boykin saw a lot of snaps due to injuries in 2013, and he produced with nearly 700 receiving yards and three touchdowns. A former Virginia Tech standout, Boykin could return to more of a reserve role with the return of Cobb, but should still see plenty of targets in Green Bay’s relentless aerial attack.
The Packers second-round pick in 2014, Fresno State’s Davante Adams has all the potential in the world to become Aaron Rodgers’ new favorite weapon. Adams put up unreal numbers in his final collegiate season, amassing 131 catches, 1,719 yards, and 24 touchdowns. The 6’2’’, 216-pound former Bulldog has been working hard to learn the team’s playbook, and once he gets on the same page as Rodgers, it could get ugly for NFL defenses.
Trufant and Alford will have their work cut out for them with Nelson and Cobb, and the rest of the Falcons’ cornerback stable will be put to the test as well.
Week 15- Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown, Lance Moore, and Markus Wheaton
Antonio Brown is one of the quickest, shiftiest receivers in the NFL. A smaller receiver at only 5’10’’, Brown wins with deceptive route running and blazing speed. Brown had great success in 2013, registering 110 catches, 1,499 yards, and eight touchdowns to go along with his second Pro Bowl berth. Brown will be a tough challenge for Trufant and Alford, but with both corners featuring blazing speed of their own, they should have no problem keeping up.
Lance Moore is a known Falcons killer. Like Colston, Moore always seemed to be in the right place at the right time for the Saints. Now with the Steelers, Moore looks to inflict more pain against the Falcons in 2014 with his new team.
Markus Wheaton is very similar to Brandin Cooks in that they are both smaller speed demons from Oregon State that can beat you deep in the blink of an eye. Wheaton enters 2014 with a breakout season on his mind, and could easily get there with more targets.
When the 2014 season is over and done with, the Falcons should have a clear idea of what they have in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. How do you think the Falcons’ young corners will fare in 2014?