With the news that Desmond Trufant is likely to hit injured reserve, which would cost him the rest of the Falcons’ 2016 season, we’re left to consider what the Falcons can and will do to make up for his loss. We’re also left to consider how big of a problem this will wind up being.
Let’s take this calmly, rationally, and not let out a primal scream that sounds like AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGHHHHHHHH. That’s the sensible thing to do.
What the Falcons will do
The most immediate move would be to add a cornerback to the active roster...and the Falcons already did that, elevating practice squad corner Deji Olatoye to the active roster earlier this week in a little-noticed and (in hindsight) ominous decision. Olatoye likely won’t be active this week, but may be going forward as the Falcons try to deal with Trufant’s absence.
They may ink a veteran at some point, but after ten games, the Falcons probably like their assemblage of talent enough to get by, especially given how thin the free agent group at cornerback is. Robert Alford will slot in as the team’s top cornerback, Jalen Collins will play outside, Brian Poole will continue to man the nickel, and C.J. Goodwin should get a lot more run in relief of those guys. Collins has only had a few weeks under his belt and Goodwin has played sparingly at times, but we know exactly what Alford and Poole are capable of, and they’re capable enough to deal with most NFL receivers.
Things will get hairy when the Falcons face teams with several quality receiving options, and unfortunately the Arizona Cardinals are one such team. They’ll need to count on safety help and a a hopefully useful pass rush to ease the pressure on the cornerback corps. If they find they’re getting destroyed this week and perhaps next, they may make another addition, but I really think this is the group you’ll see going forward.
How much trouble are the Falcons in?
Some trouble! Trufant is one of the league’s best cornerbacks for a reason, and that’s because his coverage chops are so fearsome that he can take even the best receivers out of the game most weeks. Quarterbacks know his reputation, see him close by, and choose not to target him.
That does create situations where quarterbacks would normally pick on other cornerbacks, but Alford, Poole, and even Goodwin have shown themselves to be good enough to discourage repeatedly targeting them, with a handful of exceptions. Quarterbacks are now infinitely more likely to go after their top options, whether it be Kelvin Benjamin, Larry Fitzgerald, or....whoever the Rams’ best option may be. They’re also, bluntly, more likely to be successful in those efforts, even if I do firmly believe Alford is a very good cornerback who will surprise a lot of people over the next six weeks.
The upshot here is that without Trufant, opposing passing games are likely to be more productive going to their wideouts, which just adds a couple splashes of gasoline to a fire that was already raging. This is a defense that has promise, potential, and a lot of problems, and it already was not doing stellar work on a weekly basis. Subtracting Trufant just makes life even harder and will force the team to either start coming up with turnovers or get even more out of the league’s best offense. Either way, it’s not fatal, but it is bad news for a team holding on for dear life in the NFC playoff race
The calculus would obviously change in the playoffs if the Falcons faced teams like the New York Giants or Washington Redskins who have potent aerial attacks, but we’ll have to cross that bridge if and when we get there. For now, Trufant’s loss represents a major setback for a team with playoff aspirations, albeit not a fatal one for a team that was always going to win with its offense.