The Atlanta Falcons may eventually lay claim to having one of the best secondaries in the NFL, but one major sticking point stands between them and that lofty goal: Free safety Thomas DeCoud is a square peg in a round hole.
Atlanta is expected to enter the 2014 season with second-year corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford manning the starting spots, supported by strong safety William Moore and Decoud.
Trufant looks to be a budding star with great man skills and superb tackling ability. Alford is the perfect complement, as his versatility, and athleticism allows him to be moved around. Moore is a vicious hitter who will separate your soul from your carcass.
And then there's DeCoud.
At one point in time, the Falcons ran more of a conservative scheme on defense that fit DeCoud's skills perfectly. In a more zone-oriented scheme, the free safety is allowed to read, diagnose and get to the ball. DeCoud made a living by being around plays and creating turnovers.
As the Falcons have implemented an extremely aggressive approach, DeCoud is now forced to make things happen on his own, and he simply doesn't have those types of skills.
He can't cover, is not in the least bit physical and doesn't tackle well in space. It's hard to pinpoint exactly where he excels. Most will point to his elite dance skills—those that do should see if he will retire to perform on America's Best Dance Crew—because he's undoubtedly a scheme misfit in coordinator Mike Nolan's defense.
For those of us who've played the safety position, an aspect that was to our benefit was the ability to use angles against faster opposition—or any opposition, for that matter. Taking ideal angles is an innate ability you either possess or don't.
While DeCoud isn't the fastest free safety we've ever seen (4.56 40-yard dash time, according to Sports Illustrated), his poor pursuit angles simply leave a lot to be desired.
The Falcons gave up 13 straight 100-yard rushing performances to end the season. While the front seven is mostly to blame for that debacle, a lot of the explosive plays happened on DeCoud's watch.
Here we see a well-blocked run play by the Miami Dolphins. They schemed it perfectly to ensure that every blocker became engaged with a defender. On teams with strong run defenses, the safeties play a big part in limiting explosive runs that reach the second level of the defense.
As the running back received the handoff, it became apparent that he had the benefit of a two-way go. As a safety, you want to start approaching the chaos so you meet the back with the privilege of him not at full acceleration.
In DeCoud's defense, approaching a back with multiple lanes of operation is a difficult task, but it's not impossible. You want to be reactionary while being cautious. Here, Decoud was taking the cautious thing entirely too far. It's almost as if he's waiting for the back to be tackled.
As it became apparent that the back chose the A-gap, DeCoud began to attack. At this point, DeCoud is late to the party and all the women are coupled up. Now it's up to him to make something happen or be left to leave alone.
Let's just say the last girl left is quickly getting away. Notice how DeCoud is almost running parallel to the line of scrimmage. If he'd attacked the middle of the gap, he would've forced the back to make a decision. By arriving late, the decision had already been made.
The back runs by DeCoud so fast it looks as if the wind hits him in the backside. Or maybe it's like Denzel Washington's character from the movie Training Day getting shot in the butt. Whatever it may be, it's troubling for the Atlanta defense.
For us Falcons fans screaming about getting pressure on the quarterback, the inability to stop the run or run the ball is one of the primary reasons for this season's 4-12 debacle. Acquiring a free safety in the mold of Earl Thomas (Seattle Seahawks) or Dashon Goldson (Tampa Bay) is imperative to helping fix the run woes.
Lack of Coverage Ability
Atlanta's aggressive approach on defense has forced Decoud (6'2", 192 lbs) into man coverage on "money downs." He's often left on an island to defend tight ends, and teams have adjusted their game plans accordingly.
Finding a free safety with corner-like skills is paramount in this passing age. Some teams (e.g. Seattle) have two safeties with good coverage skills. It can be argued that Moore, 6'0", 220 pounds, would be a better option at the free safety position than DeCoud—especially when it comes to defending tight ends and slot receivers—although that's not his strong point either.
Here we see DeCoud matched up with New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. While Graham is the biggest matchup nightmare in the NFL, the Falcons have to find a way to stop this monster moving forward.
The first thing you must do in man coverage is give yourself a chance to win by implementing proper technique. DeCoud's feet were entirely too close together to begin with. Not to mention he was standing too upright.
By spreading his feet shoulder-width apart, Decoud provides himself with the ability to change direction on a moment's notice. By bending his knees and slightly bending his waist, DeCoud should be able to generate more power in his press technique.
Although DeCoud used an excellent jam (left arm to left part of shoulder pads), he got out of position by turning his body too much in the process. This would allow for an easy inside move if the route calls for it.
I can hear my old coach screaming: "He's beat! He's beat!" DeCoud essentially shielded himself out of the play. Now the only way he could've stopped this quick slant would've been to interfere with the pass.
That was too easy. The Saints converted on 3rd-and-9 and ended up scoring on this drive. As bad as DeCoud is in man coverage, seeing him have to adjust to the ball while in flight is even more unnerving.
He rarely seems to get his head around to track the pass and often panics at the moment of truth.
Does anyone remember the flea flicker the Seattle Seahawks executed this season? DeCoud actually reacted in time, but his lack of coverage ability came back to haunt the secondary once again.
The receiver is in full gape, and for some odd reason DeCoud decided to reach at him. We've already established DeCoud is not the fastest safety we've ever seen (to put it mildly). By reaching at the receiver, as opposed to trying to get on top of the route, DeCoud only slowed down even more.
Although DeCoud was clearly beat, he was close enough to track the ball once he saw the receiver doing so. You do this by putting your hand on the receiver's back (gently) and turning your head quickly to track. You just want to get a glimpse of where the ball will end up.
If DeCoud had tracked the ball, he would've noticed that it was slightly underthrown. Meaning he was in perfect position to defend the pass but ended up over-running the play.
DeCoud is once again boxed out of the play. After initially reacting in a timely manner, he misplays the ball at the "moment of truth" about as worse as you can. For a unit that was fourth worst in yards per attempt, having your last line of defense as DeCoud is like the football version of Fright Night.
The Falcons need to find a hybrid safety that can set the tone with physical play and hold his own in man coverage. University of Alabama safety Ha'Sean "Ha Ha" Clinton-Dix would fit the mold. Clinton-Dix can be left on an island with tight ends and make plays downfield or in the short-to-intermediate area.
He's also known for punishing tackles, which is something you wouldn't normally associate with DeCoud. He's a better athlete—with better instincts—and would be an exact fit in Nolan's scheme.
He's also a no-nonsense individual that would work well in tandem with Moore. Can you imagine that safety duo, Falcons fans?
Is it time for the Falcons to move on from safety Thomas Decoud?
Now that's scary...
After covering the rival New Orleans Saints for the 2013 season, Atlanta native Murf Baldwin returns home to cover his hometown team in 2014. Follow Murf on Twitter and welcome him home.