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A closer look: Secondary comes to play

The secondary has been under fire in 2016. With a playoff spot on the line, they responded with their best performance of the season against a legitimate offense.

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Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Falcons secondary is the youngest group in the league. If you eliminate Dashon Goldson, who was only re-signed for depth purposes, Robert Alford is currently the oldest player in the secondary. He entered the league in 2013.

With Desmond Trufant and Kemal Ishmael out for the season, the rest of the secondary is filled with first and second year players. Jalen Collins and Ricardo Allen are in their second season. The rookie Florida duo of Keanu Neal and Brian Poole have played prominent roles this season. Sharrod Neasman had to fill in for an injured Neal, as well.

When William Moore was released, many wondered if the Falcons were going to sign a veteran. Dan Quinn opted to stick with this young group. There have been growing pains, as any coach would expect managing a young unit, but they are filled with upside and would eventually step up against a dangerous opponent.

Although Cam Newton’s dreadful performance stole the headlines, the secondary was rarely out of position. According to Pro Football Focus, Newton only completed three out of 20 passes thrown beyond ten yards downfield. Not every pass was overthrown or behind the intended receiver. The secondary played a fantastic game and deserves the spotlight this week.

I always rewatch the previous Falcons game and post GIFs on Twitter of the most standout plays or disappointing decisions. One particular player, positional group, or situation is excluded from the film review to be saved for this piece. Here are some plays from the secondary, which includes multiple angles on nearly every play.

1st quarter: 2nd and 6 at CAR 29

Trufant’s season ending injury put more pressure on Alford. Quarterbacks aren’t shy about targeting the ultra aggressive cornerback. They have benefitted from Alford’s tendency of pulling on the opposing wide receiver’s shoulder to make a play on the ball. The former second round pick has been more composed over the past nine games. According to Andrew Hirsh, Alford has only committed four penalties during that stretch. That is drastically different from being penalized eight times in the first six games.

There is nothing fancy about this play. Alford shadowed Ted Ginn for the entire game. He didn’t shy away from playing physical and getting his hands on Ginn. Newton’s poor throw certainly helped, but Alford’s coverage is excellent. His confidence is still high, despite those early season issues. The highly paid cornerback embraced covering Carolina’s most dangerous wide receiver

2nd quarter: 2nd and 10 at CAR 45

When Jalen Collins was drafted in 2015, the coaching staff envisioned these types of matchups. Collins’ size and length makes him an ideal fit for Dan Quinn’s cover three scheme. He covered Kelvin Benjamin for the majority of the game. It was a good matchup for him, considering Benjamin’s inability to create separation and makes plays in traffic. This play showcased Benjamin’s shortcomings, while also revealing Collins’ progression.

He failed to turn his head around on deep passes against Arizona and Kansas City. Carson Palmer and Chris Conley bailed him out in those respective games. Not only does Collins turn his head, but he also makes a play on the ball. Benjamin needs to make this catch based on Newton’s excellent throw. We shouldn’t overlook Collins playing airtight coverage and attempting to swat the pass away, especially because ball location has been an area missing in his game.

2nd quarter: 3rd and 10 at CAR 45

Keanu Neal shadowed Greg Olsen during their first meeting. He did an outstanding job in the first three quarters, before Olsen overwhelmed the rookie strong safety. They faced each other again in the slot. The Pro Bowl tight end does get inside leverage on the route. Neal closes the distance and tracks him downfield. While he doesn’t turn his head around, the secondary provides strong support.

Collins shows good recognition to read Newton’s throw. It doesn’t matter as he throws another inaccurate pass, which became a constant theme. Ricardo Allen nearly comes up with an interception. Neal is fortunate not to get caught face guarding.

2nd quarter: 1st and goal at ATL 13

With Ginn resting on the sideline, Alford was matched up against Devin Funchess. He reads the tall wide receiver’s outside fake and brilliantly jumps the post route. Similar to Trufant, Alford possess excellent closing speed. That allows him to be around the ball and nearly intercept Newton in the end zone.

If Newton’s ball placement is higher, Funchess could score here. At six foot five, the former second round pick is clearly a massive red zone option. Alford deserves credit for wanting the ball more on this occasion. The interception was missing from an all around fantastic play.

2nd quarter: 2nd and goal at ATL 13

Carolina decides to get more creative on the next play. A play action bootleg featuring Newton and Olsen should translate into something successful. Not many tight ends are better at making plays in traffic than Olsen. Newton’s size and elusiveness makes him a nightmare in the open field. As Vic Beasley closes him down, he appears to be hesitant and doesn’t release the ball fast enough.

Olsen does get away from Collins and appears to be open for a split second. Neasman does a terrific job to close down any possible touchdown opportunity. Newton overthrows another pass, but this is another prime example of the secondary being organized. Neasman recognizes that Olsen and Funchess are the primary options. By closing down Olsen, it would have taken a precise throw from Newton to complete this pass. Asking the 2015 MVP quarterback to hit a player in stride proved to be an enormous challenge last Saturday.

2nd quarter: 1st and 10 at 50

This is a bizarre play on all fronts. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula designed a play where Benjamin is supposed to chip the right edge rusher. He manages to boost Dwight Freeney rather than impede his movement. Newton tries to find Ginn, who creates decent separation against Alford. What the star quarterback forgets is that Atlanta has three cornerbacks on the field. Alford and Poole are on the outside handling their man coverage responsibilities.

With Benjamin chipping Freeney, it essentially makes him an afterthought on this play. It allows Collins to read Newton’s eyes and pinpoint where the pass is headed. That helps him earn the first interception of his NFL career. There hasn’t been much discussion about Collins’ overall instincts. The former LSU Tiger showed them on this interception.

3rd quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 27

When assessing Collins’ attributes, most scouting reports will highlight his size, length, confidence, and versatility. There isn’t much discussion about his speed. Collins ran a 4.48 at the combine. For a player of his size, he moves extremely well, which helps him play bump-and-run coverage. It also allows him to close down shorter passes as well.

Collins anticipates Newton looking for a quick eight-yard completion, as the Panthers are facing a 17-point deficit and desperately need momentum. Collins reads the out route and breaks up the pass intended for Ginn. Once again, Newton’s ball placement is poor. If he throws it higher, it would have been difficult for the former second round pick to break up this pass. He does show good closing speed here. It’ll be interesting to see how Collins fares against Drew Brees on Sunday, who is the most accurate passer in NFL history.

4th quarter: 2nd and 10 at CAR 44

This is my favorite play from Saturday’s performance. Alford doesn’t bite on Ginn’s juke and perfectly reads this pass. His footwork is tremendous, along with his timing on the jump. In week five, Alford got penalized for tugging DeMaryius Thomas’ jersey before the pass arrived. He was far too aggressive and didn’t allow him a fair chance to catch the pass.

Alford jumps Ginn’s route and breaks up the pass with beautiful technique. Notice how he doesn’t pull Ginn’s jersey with his right hand. Alford stays disciplined and bats the pass down with his left hand. These are the type of plays you would expect from a cornerback, who was re-signed to a big deal. According to Pro Football Focus, Alford held Ginn to two catches for 24 yards on five targets with two pass deflections. This play is a strong indicator of the cornerback’s outstanding performance.