Off to a tough start to the 2022 season, Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell’s challenges won’t become easier this weekend when the team squares off against the Seattle Seahawks and their dynamic duo of receivers in D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. The game does offer itself up as an opportune time for him to bounce back, even so.
Entering the season, everybody agreed that Terrell was among a handful of known bright spots on the Falcons. Coming off a 2021 season that saw him earn many accolades including multiple All-Pro bids, both official and unofficial, and becoming widely considered one of the ten best players under the age of 25, the only thing that was missing from his resume after his second NFL season seemed to be collective recognition from his peers and those within the league.
If those dismissals were supposed to put a chip on his shoulder entering the 2022 season, it has yet to manifest on the football field. Terrell has struggled in the first two games of the season, earning a PFF grade of 57.1, ranking him 76th among 111 qualifying cornerbacks. Terrell has allowed four touchdowns in coverage thus far this year after a 2021 season where he only allowed three total.
Regression and caliber of receiver might explain Terrell’s struggles thus far
Now before moving further, I want to clarify that I don’t think Terrell has been bad this year. He just set the bar extremely high in 2021, and he’s likely due for some degree of regression. The very nature of the cornerback position means that you’re going to get beat from time to time, since NFL offenses are very efficient nowadays and that efficiency only increases every year.
Based on my charting of the Falcons’ defense, three of Terrell’s allowed touchdowns came when he was singled up against a top wide receiver in goal-to-go situations. Two were against Michael Thomas as part of the Falcons’ fourth-quarter collapse in that game. Another was against Allen Robinson last week. These are two of the best receivers in the game.
His fourth touchdown allowed came this past week against Cooper Kupp and was simply a blown assignment that left Kupp open in the flat, leading to a missed tackle from Jaylinn Hawkins that led to the score. Kupp has a knack for finding the endzone, since he led the league with 16 touchdowns last year.
There’s no shame in being on the losing end of a matchup against one of the best in the business. However, one of the reasons why Terrell is considered among the best at his position is that he rarely found himself on that lesser side.
Metcalf and Lockett both offer challenges and a chance at redemption
Yet things won’t get easier for him this week against Metcalf and Lockett. Metcalf offers a unique blend of size and speed, standing 6-foot-4 with a chiseled 236-pound frame, and clocking a 4.33-second 40-yard dash time at the Combine a few years back.
Lockett doesn’t match Metcalf in the size department, as he stands a notch below 5’10”, but brings just as much speed with a 4.40-second 40 time and elite quickness to boot.
Given the statures of Thomas and Robinson, along with past struggles against Tampa Bay wideout Mike Evans and current Cincinnati Bengal Ja’Marr Chase dating back to his collegiate days, it is clear that Terrell has had more problems with the bigger, more physical receivers like Metcalf in the past.
The Kupp touchdown withstanding (which I’ll again stress was a mental mistake, not a physical one), in past matchups where he’s been asked to shadow receivers better known for their quickness and route-running abilities such as Minnesota’s Adam Thielen and Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs, Terrell has shined. This suggests that he’d be better suited to keeping a player like Lockett in check versus Metcalf.
Also, this weekend’s game offers some form of redemption for Terrell, who saw this Seahawks duo in his first NFL action back in the Falcons’ season-opening loss back in 2020. In that game, Terrell was credited by PFF with giving up seven catches on seven targets for 103 yards. That included a pair of catches to Lockett for 36 yards and a pair of Metcalf receptions for 50 yards, including a 37-yarder on a double move.
Given that Terrell lines up the majority of his snaps at left cornerback, that puts Lockett firmly in his crosshairs. While Lockett spends a considerable amount of time in the slot (42 percent of his snaps according to PFF), when lined up out wide, about 80 percent of his snaps come lined up at the right receiver, who faces the left corner.
Metcalf instead lines up predominantly on the left side of the offense (75 percent of his wide snaps and 60 percent of all his snaps) against the right cornerback. That would put him up against veteran Casey Hayward the majority of the time should that pattern follow suit on Sunday.
Evolving role may also be factor in Terrell’s rough start
Notably, the Falcons have asked Terrell to spend less time on the left side of the defense in 2022 than they did a year ago. All three of his touchdowns allowed against Thomas and Robinson came when he was lined up at right cornerback. In 2021, over 97 percent of Terrell’s snaps at outside corner were spent on the left side of the defense. Thus far in 2022, that number has fallen to 67 percent.
Thus, we may very well see Terrell matched up against Metcalf from time to time, especially in those goal-to-go situations. And that gives him a prime opportunity to reverse the trend we’ve seen in the early games if he can stymie Metcalf in those situations.
Outside those scenarios, if he can do to Lockett what he did to Diggs last season, it will restore confidence that Terrell is still one of the best at his position and that the first two games were more of an aberration.
Perhaps this also explains Terrell’s struggles so far, as he is adjusting to a different role this season. One where in do-or-die situations near the goal line, the Falcons coaching staff trust in his ability to lock down the opposing team’s go-to threat. Unfortunately for Terrell, he hasn’t confirmed that faith by proving the victor in those battles. But Sunday’s matchup against the Seahawks receivers Metcalf and Lockett offers another opportunity to shift the narrative and turn the tide back in his favor.
Do you think Terrell will bounce back this week? Or will we continue to see him struggle?