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A Closer Look: Robert Alford’s elevation

The veteran cornerback is playing the best football of his career.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

There are only three defensive players left from Mike Smith’s regime. All three of them were selected in the 2013 draft.

Desmond Trufant has established himself as one of the most dependable cornerbacks in the league. With Dan Quinn constructing a defense based on speed and versatility, it provided a niche for Kemal Ishmael, and he remains a core special teamer. It leaves Robert Alford as the final player remaining from that draft class. Many thought the former second round pick was expendable, especially with Jalen Collins appearing to be a natural fit in Quinn’s defense. The organization didn’t feel that way and rewarded him with a contract extension during the 2016 season.

Alford has rewarded them with a steady season. After suffering from extended stretches of playing overly aggressive, the enigmatic cornerback is showing more maturity. His positioning is much-improved following years of biting on double moves. The careless illegal contact penalties have been reduced. When Trufant tore his pectoral last November, it proved to be a major turning point in Alford’s career. Handling major responsibilities such as covering number one wide receivers and becoming the elder statesmen in a young secondary made him a more consistent player. That has been evident in do-or-die games against Carolina and Los Angeles.

I always rewatch the previous Falcons game and post GIFs on Twitter of the most impressive and disappointing plays. One specific player, positional group, or topic is excluded from the film review to be saved for this piece. Alford was outstanding against the Rams. From breaking two passes to covering a plethora of different receivers, he played an integral role in the Falcons’ success. Here are four of his most impressive plays.

First Quarter: 2nd and 7 at LAR 45

One of the main elements of Sean McVay’s offense involves creating big plays off play action. Other than Deshaun Watson, no quarterback threw off play fakes more often than Jared Goff. His play-action passer rating was 109.3 per Pro Football Focus. With McVay’s brilliance and a much-improved offensive line, all the new pieces coalesced into an offensive juggernaut. Sammy Watkins took a more reduced role in the offense. They preferred using him on vertical routes to give Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods space underneath, which normally created matchup problems. It allows them to attack the opposing defense at three levels with three capable receivers.

There isn’t much creativity behind this play. Goff is set on testing Alford downfield with his best deep threat. Testing Atlanta’s outside cornerbacks seemed to be one of McVay’s early intentions. It started with their most talented receiver against Alford. Watkins shakes him at the line of scrimmage to get a step ahead. Similar to Trufant, Alford’s recovery speed allows him to regain proper positioning on vertical passes. Goff’s pass is slightly under thrown. That does benefit Alford, as he is able to deflect the deep ball with relative ease. A better throw would force Alford into making a more difficult play.

It shouldn’t discount Alford’s superb hand placement and timing. In past seasons, he would tug the wide receiver’s jersey and commit an unnecessary penalty. Those days are long gone. Alford delicately places both hands on Watkins, as both players are fighting for position. The aggressive cornerback turns his head around and tracks the ball down for a huge pass breakup.

Second Quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 34

The Rams are known for deploying bunch formations to create mismatches. In recent weeks, these concepts were designed to clear out space for Todd Gurley. McVay does a brilliant job of putting him in different areas to keep the defense guessing. On this play, they used him as an inside receiver. It was reminiscent of Gurley’s first touchdown against Tennessee. The superstar running back ended up not being the primary target. Goff is intent on hitting Woods for an explosive play. For a normally conservative quarterback, Goff played more aggressively. That was likely based on playing from behind for most of the game.

Alford is put in an awkward position. Tyler Higbee does a nice job screening him off, while running a quick hitch. That gives Woods room to run straight downfield. Alford has no other choice than to chase him down with his back turned in the wrong direction. It’s clearly not an ideal situation. The under appreciated cornerback makes up for it with excellent awareness and control. Many players would easily panic in this situation. They would either barge into the wide receiver or grab his arms before the ball arrives to prevent a completion.

Alford manages to stay composed to force an in-completion. His hand placement is excellent once again. By turning his head inside, the officials can’t penalize him for face guarding. It’s another moment, where a big play could have easily materialized. Alford’s tremendous individual effort set the tone when Atlanta used man coverage.

Third Quarter: 1st and 10 at LAR 26

Alford is pressed into man coverage against Kupp. As the Rams use play action, they are hoping both wide receivers win their isolated matchups. They implement max protection to give Goff sufficient time to throw a precise ball. You would assume Goff would look to target Watkins, as Brian Poole is forced into tracking him. The play design takes Trufant out of coverage. Goff opts to target Alford, which proves to be a poor decision.

It looks like Kupp is going to run an in-breaking route. With Alford draped all over him, Goff may have figured that the cornerback wouldn’t be able to change direction as sharply as Kupp does on the top of the route. Alford’s fluid hips helped him maintain his strong positioning against Los Angeles’ most clever route runner. To blanket him for nine seconds on such a long-developing play is very impressive.

Alford embraced the challenge of covering each receiver. It didn’t matter who matched up against him. He made Goff regret throwing in his direction on a consistent basis. According to Pro Football Focus, Alford only allowed two catches on eight targets along with two passes defensed. This is an exceptional play that embodies how well he played.

Fourth Quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 49

The Rams were in desperation mode at this point. Facing a 13-point deficit with less than two minutes left forced Goff into taking more chances. They needed to create something quickly, which meant throwing the ball to their most explosive receiver. Watkins is running another vertical route against Alford. Unlike the first target, Watkins gets inside leverage. That can be problematic for Alford, given the size difference. Defending behind a bigger wide receiver on a straight go could create issues.

Goff throws a fantastic deep ball to give Watkins a great opportunity to make the game more interesting. A bizarre lack of effort from Watkins and Alford’s timing puts a nail in the Rams’ comeback hopes. It was surprising to see Watkins not attempt to make a real play on the ball. He doesn’t jump nor shift his body to catch Goff’s rainbow. Alford makes a better attempt on the ball, despite being in back of him. This is another example of the veteran cornerback’s tenacity. There will be nervy moments with Alford every now or then. As this game indicated, he is going to come out on top more times than not.