Falcons waging war at nickel back

FLOWERY BRANCH — As the NFL evolves into more of a passing league, coaches have placed an increasing importance on the nickel back — or fifth defensive back — position.

That proposition holds true for the Falcons, who view the nickel back as a starter. With offenses using more sets with three and four wide receivers in passing situations, the nickel back sees a lot of action.

“Last year, we played over 55 percent in our [nickel] defense,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “Our nickel plays more than our third linebacker. ... You’ve got to have the ability to match up with five defensive backs.”

One of the more competitive battles will be at nickel back when the Falcons play the Miami Dolphins at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Georgia Dome.

Christopher Owens and Dominique Franks are the top two contenders for that position, while safety Rafael Bush also is getting a look.

Owens, a 5-foot-9, 180-pounder, opened last season as the top nickel back before going down with a back injury against Cincinnati on Oct. 24. He started in three games when the team opened in its nickel formation.

Brian Williams, who was not re-signed, took over at nickel back against Tampa Bay on Nov. 7. But when Williams suffered a knee injury in the regular-season finale against Carolina on Jan. 2, Owens returned to the lineup in the divisional playoff game.

Franks played in two games last season as a rookie. At 6-0, 197 pounds, he is much bigger than Owens.

“I think both of those players give us a lot of flexibility,” Smith said.

Owens, who was taken in the third round (90th overall) of the 2009 draft out of San Jose State, had a strong rookie season. Things were uneven last season with the injury, and he had a difficult day against Green Bay in the playoffs.

“I worked through it,” Owens said of his tough second season. “I got a lot of playing time and gained a lot of experience. Brian Williams helped me a lot going into that nickel position. Now, I feel like I’ve got it and can make plays.”

Franks was drafted in the fourth round (135th overall) last year. He came out of Oklahoma after his junior season.

He has been spectacular in training camp. It appears that he intercepts at least one pass a day. During most practices he seems to get two or three.

“He’s been balling out there,” Owens said. “I know that you guys see the interceptions. The guy has come a long way. We are expecting pretty big things. He’s learned that nickel position very quickly.”

The Falcons had to work on Franks’ technique and break him of the habit of looking into the backfield.

Now that he has trained his eyes to stay with the receivers, the receivers are leading him to the ball.

“When we had our seven-on-seven practices, I just talked to Roddy [White] and asked him when he’s running certain routes, how does he line up,” Franks said. “I was just trying to get some little tips from a great receiver.”

With the tips from White and improved techniques, Franks clearly is more comfortable.

“I just want to prepare myself as best as possible so that I can come out here and put my best foot forward,” Franks said.

Many of the folks on the Internet message boards were screaming for the Falcons to sign a free-agent cornerback or even get in the Nnamdi Asomugha derby.

After the coaches’ offseason film review, they were pleased with their cornerbacks and believe that they could continue to develop.

Bush is more interesting because he was a bone-rattling hitter as a safety at South Carolina State. He impressed the coaches while playing cornerback on the practice squad last season.

Owens is a tough and tenacious player. He’s not likely going to yield his spot without waging a war.

“I feel more comfortable in the nickel position,” Owens said. “I know the defense a lot better. I feel that will be to my advantage.”

The coaches get excited at the mere mention of the competition.

“We love competition,” secondary coach Tim Lewis said. “It’s an important position for us. The competition is really bringing out the best in all of them.”