FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. To look at the arc of the career of Falcons cornerback Christopher Owens from a certain direction, one can see a downward trend.
As a rookie in 2009, Owens started six games. Then it was three the next season, two last and just one this one in 12 games.
Yet on Thursday, when Falcons starting left cornerback Asante Samuel went out of the game on the third play from scrimmage, Owens had to step in against a New Orleans offense that had bedeviled the Falcons. In the teams previous seven meetings, the Saints had averaged nearly 29 points against Atlanta.
However, as much as Owens young career has been marked by struggles notably against Green Bay in the playoffs in January 2011, as the Packers whipped the Falcons 48-21 he has made slow, steady strides that suddenly became noticeable against New Orleans last week.
Owens illustrated why the front office and coaching staff have had so much faith in him when others have questioned why the Falcons kept him on the roster, posting arguably the best game of his career. He equaled a career high with two passes defended and also made three solo tackles.
A third-round draft pick in 2009, Owens was humble in reflecting on the game.
Um, I think its a start, thats all, he said. Im not too high on myself. Im not too down. Theres some stuff I couldve done better, looking at the film. Its just a start, really.
A few locker stalls down from Owens sits fellow cornerback Dunta Robinson, who is in his ninth season. Robinson provided the perspective that Owens, ought of modesty or shyness, didnt.
Robinson said that when Samuel left the game, he took Owens aside and said, you got to step in and play big.
And he looked at me with a lot of confidence and he was like, Oh, yeah, I got you, Robinson said. He went out there and played amazing, man. We didnt miss a beat.
Then Robinson, who has suffered through a concussion during his career, referenced the fact that Owens missed two games earlier this season with those mercurial brain injuries.
For Chris, with all hes been through with the injuries -- similar to mine -- to see him overcome those things, its big for him, Robinson said. Im very proud and happy for him.
One factor that might have benefited Owens was the coaching staffs decision to play him on the outside. Previously, they would play him at the inside corner in the nickel package and move the regular nickel back to the outside. However, with first-year Falcon Robert McClain playing so well at the inside corner, where he is the starter, the coaches elected to keep McClain there. Coaches say its easier to play the outside corner because a defender can use the boundary to his benefit while on the inside receivers have more freedom to run their routes.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith said part of the decision also was determined by the fact that Owens had taken more snaps in practice on the outside. Owens said he has no preference between the outside and inside corner.
Im not foreign to the position so I feel all right, he said. As long as Im out there.
With performances like that, Owens might earn himself more playing time.
I thought he did a nice job, Smith said. He had a pass break-up on a deep ball there in the second quarter and did some good things.
The defining factor will be the health status of others. The Falcons are already down one corner with 2010 Pro-Bowler Brent Grimes going down for the season in Week 1 then Samuel missed almost all of last weeks game and has been limited in his last three because of a right shoulder injury.
The competition in our room was just so high, Robinson said. Were you an 11-1 football team, competition is going to be a big part of that. Youve got to have guys who can play when guys go down so he just waited for his number to be called. He didnt get uptight about it, he didnt get upset about it. His number was called Thursday and he delivered and ultimately I think that will work out in his favor.
Samuel did not practice on Wednesday. Smith has been circumspect on whether the Falcons would rest players like him, who might be injured but could still play, now that they have already clinched the NFC South title. If Samuel cannot play or cannot play much again it will be another opportunity for Owens.
He shows some good drive on the ball, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. They are deep. Thats one thing you have to give them credit for.
For now, Owens confidence appears to be riding high and his teammates have noticed.
And that comes with experience, Robinson said. That comes with years. The more you play in this game, the more confidence you develop and if you dont develop that confidence, then youll be out of this league. Chris is one of those guys who I think can play for in this league for a long time and I think he will.
Every year hes coming out, hes playing with a lot of confidence. He took a lot of slack in his early years for not playing particularly well but to put that behind him and have the kind of game he had on national TV, I was very proud of him.