Alford’s performance saved by exhibition distinction

If the exhibition game at Tennessee on Saturday night had been an actual Falcons game, rookie cornerback Robert Alford would be feeling heat from fans and media pundits scrutinizing his lackluster performance.

Because the game didn’t count, Alford’s miscues rise only to the level rather of preseason concern rather than Falcons emergency. The conditions he faced were real, though, and he could see them again during the regular season.

The Falcons sent Alford in to the game Saturday after veteran cornerback Asante Samuel left with an injury after only three plays. Samuel left two games early in 2012 and missed another because of injuries, and at 32 years old with a relatively small build, Samuel’s durability is an ongoing concern.

If Alford must fill in during the season, the opponent almost certainly will go after Alford in the same relentless way the Titans did. Alford recently said his goal is to be the NFL’s defensive player of the year, but the more immediate concern is showing he can hold up when targeted.

“I know it’s cliche for a rookie, but it’s a learning experience, and he’s using it as fuel for his fire,” Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. “He’s going to learn that in this league, rookies get attacked, especially at the position he plays. It’s just going to make him compete even harder, I think.”

The Falcons are counting on that, starting with Thursday’s exhibition finale against the Jaguars. With Samuel still sidelined, the game provides an immediate chance for Alford to show that Saturday’s game was an aberration.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Titans targeted Alford 10 times out of his 30 plays in pass coverage. Alford allowed seven catches, including three touchdowns and a 56-yard gain to wide receiver Michael Preston.

Alford said he was at the team’s complex the day after the game watching video alone. He attributed his subpar performance to “some technique things and some mental errors,” but said he got things corrected with assistant coaches Tim Lewis and Joe Danna.

Alford added that his psyche is fine, too.

“My confidence is always going to stay high,” Alford said. “One game doesn’t make me.”

It wasn’t all bad for Alford against the Titans. He intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick’s pass in the third quarter and had two other passes defended.

Lewis said Alford showed “no ill effects” from Saturday’s game. He was half-kidding because it was just an exhibition, but it is important for cornerbacks to maintain their confidence after they inevitably get beat.

“He’s not going to be the one who gets the camera turned on and goes, ‘Oh no. What now?’” Lewis said. “His personality is not like that, which is part of our scouting department’s thing when putting together our team. (General manager Thomas Dimitroff) wants to know that he’s got guys that can stand up to anything, and he picked a good one in this guy.”

The Falcons drafted Alford in the second round out of Southeastern Louisiana, where he played three seasons. He improved his draft stock with a strong week at the Senior Bowl. Alford’s scouting report touted his speed, aggressiveness in coverage, leaping ability and ball skills.

Cornerback Marcus Trufant, the Falcons’ first-round draft pick, is expected to start at one cornerback, but Alford will play a key role after veterans Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson and Christopher Owens departed in the offseason. Those circumstances are why Alford’s poor outing gained more notice than it may have otherwise.

Samuel has played all 16 games once in his career, 2009 with the Eagles. Last season he played 812 snaps (79 percent) compared with 936 (91 percent) for Robinson, the other starting cornerback.

At some point Alford is going to have to fill in for Samuel in a real game, and he’s going to have to be better than he showed against the Titans.

“He doesn’t have real thin skin, so he can take tough coaching,” Lewis said. “He can take some stuff and still come back.”

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