Struggling Atlanta CBs face huge test

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

On paper, it might be the biggest mismatch of the NFL season.

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees and his army of receivers, which just might be the deepest stable in the league, vs. Atlanta’s much-maligned secondary.

You could say this one is Goliath going against David again. But that one doesn’t quite fit because David also had a bit of a pass rush to compensate for his lack of size.

The Falcons simply don’t have a lot going for them in the secondary right now, and that could end up costing them any shot at the NFC South title. At 4-2, they’re already on the verge of playing only for a wild-card spot as they head into the Superdome to play the undefeated Saints on "Monday Night Football."

The Saints have Brees, Marques Colston, Jeremy Shockey and a whole bunch of other guys who can catch the ball all over the field. They’ve also got the tape of last week’s Atlanta loss to Dallas -- a game in which the shortcomings of the Falcons’ secondary were exposed repeatedly.

“They got hit in a couple of pressures when they weren’t able to get to the quarterback so they had receivers with a lot of time to work downfield and the Cowboys did a good job of taking advantage of some of those,’’ Brees said.

That’s just Brees being politically correct, as he always is. But, you have to figure that Brees and coach Sean Payton have spent the week watching the Atlanta-Dallas film and getting more than a little excited about the possibilities. If Tony Romo and Miles Austin can batter the Atlanta secondary, Brees, Colston and company could absolutely shred it.

The Falcons don’t have anything close to a shutdown corner, and two of their top three cornerbacks wouldn’t be among top three cornerbacks on any other team. Although Atlanta coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have done a great job since taking over a franchise in total disarray, cornerback might be the one spot they’re not better off than they were when they took charge in 2008.

Part of it is bad luck. The Falcons lost veteran cornerback Brian Williams to a season-ending injury. But part of it is that the Falcons largely have ignored this position. That’s been showing up recently and it could be completely exploited by the Saints. If that happens, Dimitroff and Smith have no one to blame but themselves.

They didn’t have a strong stable of cornerbacks last year, but they were able to hide that. They had an entire offseason to get better and they didn’t. They let Domonique Foxworth go in free agency and decided to stick with Chris Houston, Chevis Jackson and Brent Grimes -- and that’s a little scary.

Houston’s the best of the bunch, but he’s a decent No. 2 cornerback being asked to be a shutdown guy. Grimes is athletic, but woefully undersized. Jackson showed some big promise as a rookie, but hasn’t been able to cover anyone this year.

The problems became apparent in the preseason and training camp and that’s why the Falcons went out and signed Williams and traded for Tye Hill at the last minute. Williams was decent before his injury, but Hill hasn’t shown anything to convince the coaching staff to let him on the field.

The Falcons also have rookie Christopher Owens and there are hopes that he could be an impact player down the road. Don’t be surprised if Owens gets some playing time against the Saints because his size might allow him to match up better than Grimes against the New Orleans receivers, but Owens isn’t going to fix all of the problems in one game.

If there is any hope for the Atlanta cornerbacks to at least slow down Brees and the passing game, they’ll have to have help -- lots of it -- and there haven’t been many signs that anyone is ready to come to the rescue.

The Falcons were able to hide their deficiencies in coverage last year mainly by putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. That came almost entirely from veteran pass-rush specialist John Abraham, but he’s been relatively quiet this season.

At times in the Dallas game, Abraham was seen dropping into pass coverage, which makes about as much sense as putting Brees in the Wildcat formation. You have to let your best players do what they do best and the Falcons need to let Abraham focus solely on getting to Brees. They also need some help from their other starting defensive end, Kroy Biermann, who started the season fast, but has cooled off recently.

Smith and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder tried to give the pass rush some help against Dallas by blitzing frequently, but that didn’t really work out. The blitzers seldom got close to Romo and he was able to find the weak spots in the secondary.

“You live by the pressure and you die by the pressure,’’ Brees said. “You might make a few plays when you pressure, but you’re leaving yourself open to giving up some big plays. That’s the pros and cons on a pressure defense.’’

Those are the pros and cons facing Smith and VanGorder. They have to generate a pass rush to keep their cornerbacks from being stuck in coverage too long. But Brees and the Saints are pretty good at handling pressure. Brees gets rid of the ball quickly and doesn’t take many sacks.

“I figure, with these guys, they’ve shown to pressure a lot at times and do some things that they haven’t done in the past,’’ Brees said.

Maybe that’s the key for the Falcons. Maybe they need to do something they haven’t done in the past -- like have their cornerbacks actually cover some receivers.