Robert Alford embracing move to nickel back

Falcons cornerback Robert Alford, the hero of the victory against Washington on Oct. 11 with his 59-yard interception return for a touchdown in overtime, could have put up a fuss when informed that he was moving inside to nickel back.

But he took the move in stride and has embraced his new role. He will stay outside at right cornerback in the base defense.

“What I like is that he has a great attitude,” defensive coordinator Richard Smith said. “He’s not upset saying, ‘man I should be playing outside.’ He’s (doing) what’s best for the football team.”

After New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees completed 31 of 39 passes against the Falcons on Oct. 15, the coaching staff re-examined the secondary personnel. They re-inserted Ricardo Allen at free safety and benched nickel back Phillip Adams by moving second-round pick Jalen Collins to right cornerback and Alford inside to nickel back.

The Falcons have searched for a “shut-down” nickel back pretty much since Green Bay torched Christopher Owens in the divisional playoff game after the 2009 season.

Alford is leaning into the move.

“Pretty much, it’s just the whole mindset of things,” Alford said. “It’s very different from the outside. The receivers have two-way goes, and sometimes the receivers run a lot of option routes, depending on the leverage of the defense that you’re playing.”

Alford must prepare a little differently for the inside-slot assignments.

“It all falls back to just studying film on the opponent at that certain position and just getting familiar with it and putting it to work on Sunday,” Alford said.

Alford received plenty of action against the Titans on Sunday, when he finished with six tackles.

“It was a good experience,” Alford said. “I’m glad that the coaches gave me a chance to play a game at nickel. I learned a lot from that game. There was some stuff that I can improve on and some stuff that I did well.”

Alford, who was drafted in the second round of the 2013 draft out of Southeastern Louisiana, is in his third season with the Falcons.

He played in all 16 games as a rookie and made four starts. In his first game in the NFL, he intercepted Brees. Last season, he started 10 games before suffering a broken wrist.

Alford has practiced some at nickel back over the years, but hadn’t seen extensive action at the spot until Sunday.

Alford has had trouble with putting his hands on receivers, but in the slot and in the contact zone, he can rough up receivers all day.

He also has the speed to close quickly on routes.

“I have speed, but it’s not always about speed,” Alford said. “I have to have some technique at that position, too, because they’ll have some shifty guys, and sometimes they’ll have some big guys in there. Most of the time, it’s the little shifty guys. When you get down on those shifty guys, you have to be down pat with your technique.”

Falcons coach Dan Quinn said the move would allow for more options with their zones and man-to-man coverages. Also, the nickel back has to blitz some to help out the pass rush.

Alford is looking forward to his blitz number being called.

“That’s what I love,” Alford said. “Just to be able to make a play for your team. Most of the time when you get to come on that blitz and make a tackle, that’s like a 5-yard or 6-yard loss. That feels good to be able to just blitz from that position, too.”

The move appears well-conceived by the coaching staff.

“What it allows us to do is put Robert inside where he’s a very physical player, and he utilizes his quickness and his toughness inside,” Smith said. “It worked about pretty well last week and we’ll see what happens this week.”

Quinn said: “We wanted to feature some more man-to-man in certain contests, and we thought that Rob would be able to do that. We like him as a blitzer and as a tackler, so those were some of the factors that we had to go into it.”