Atlanta Falcons: Replacing Brent Grimes Will Be Tougher Than Expected

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Atlanta Falcons: Replacing Brent Grimes Will Be Tougher Than Expected
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

It didn’t take long for the Atlanta Falcons to find a replacement cornerback for Brent Grimes’ roster spot. But the team won’t be able to replace Grimes.

Head coach Mike Smith announced Monday during his weekly press conference that Grimes had an MRI that morning and it was determined that he had a season-ending Achilles tendon injury.

The Falcons placed Grimes on the injured reserve list Tuesday and signed cornerback Terrence Johnson, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Johnson signed as an undrafted free agent with New England in 2010 but later landed with Indianapolis on its practice squad. In 2011, Johnson played in 10 games for the Colts and started two, recording 37 tackles.

According to the AJC, Johnson is a speedy corner used primarily as a nickel option with the Colts.

The nickel spot is exactly where the Falcons need help right now.

Typically when a Pro Bowl-caliber corner falls to an injury for the season that team's secondary is devastated. But the Falcons had three No. 1 corners in Grimes, Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel.

The Falcons’ pre-draft move to send a seventh-round pick to Philadelphia for Samuel looks like a genius move now.

Samuel will continue to man one corner, with Robinson on the other. Robinson was working as the team’s nickel back but now the Falcons must find another—and that’s an increasingly important position on the team.

In recent years Smith’s defenses have played much more in nickel (also known as sub package) than in a base package (4-3 for the Falcons). But the split has been something close to 65 percent nickel to 35 percent base.

Smith said Monday that the Falcons played all but 11 plays in their sub package, meaning that the team played with three cornerbacks on the field most of the time.

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With the addition of Johnson, Atlanta has four options for replacements at nickel. Christopher Owens and Dominique Franks are both on the roster, as is Robert McClain.

The decision will likely come down to Franks versus Owens, at least for Atlanta’s Week 2 game against Denver.

Johnson likely won’t be up to speed enough to step in on six days notice (Atlanta has an extra day of preparation time since it plays on Monday) and McClain is more of a backup than a nickel option.

Seeing that Franks was just cut when the team trimmed its roster to 53 players and later re-signed, Owens may have the lead in this new position battle.

“Chris has played at the nickel position,” Smith said. “Again, it’s something we’ll work over the next couple of days. We’ve got lots of flexibility in terms of our secondary.

“Through the offseason as we’re putting together our opening day roster we play guys at right corner, at left corner, cross-trained them because there are match situations as the season goes on that we’ll have to distribute our defensive backs in that way. Chris is definitely a guy that’s got some experience and some playing time.”

Not only do the Falcons need to figure out who will step in as the third corner, they may have to decide where to play him.

Smith mentioned all the cross-training involved in the secondary. That may allow the team to leave Robinson in the slot—a position he’s the most comfortable with—and place the new addition on the outside.

For that to work, whoever wins the job needs to be able to work on the outside in man coverage, on an island.

According to Pro Football Focus ($$), Owens only played 12 passing snaps on Sunday in Kansas City and was targeted just once.

The play happened in the fourth quarter, late after Grimes exited the game. Owens was playing on the outside and gave a large cushion to Steve Breaston who should have caught the pass and had time to turn and advance. But Breaston dropped the pass and Owens didn’t have a mark against him in coverage.

Owens, by far, gave up the most receptions per targets last year. Owens played on 208 coverage snaps and was targeted 37 times. He gave up 28 receptions and two touchdowns. That means 76 percent of the balls thrown at Owens were completed.

stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Franks wasn’t much better at 65 percent, but both he and Owens were a huge drop off from Grimes (45 percent), Samuel (48 percent) and Robinson (55 percent).

Not only was Grimes the best in coverage for the Falcons last year, he was the best tackler of the cornerbacks on the roster. Not only did Grimes make the most tackles per coverage snap in 2011, when he gave up a reception he tackled the ball carrier quicker than everyone else. Grimes gave up far fewer yards after the catch than any corner on the Falcons roster.

If you think the Falcons will be OK because they had three No. 1 corners on the roster, and losing Grimes still leaves the team two, think again. Because of the league moving to more of a passing league, and the Falcons playing with an extremely inexperienced middle linebacker, they played in a nickel most of the game.

The third corner on the Falcons gets a lot of playing time. Right now there’s a huge drop-off from Robinson and Samuel to whoever Atlanta uses to replace Grimes.

This could turn out to be a devastating injury for the Falcons.

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