FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. After taking a look at Dunta Robinson's first two seasons following the Atlanta Falcons' decision to award the cornerback a six-year contract with 25.5 million guaranteed, some Falcons fans might have been left to scratch their heads.
Among the most headline-grabbing things that Robinson did in his first two seasons were hits for which he was fined by the NFL on plays against Philadelphia receivers, one in '10 and one in '11.
In 2010, Brent Grimes, not Robinson, was the cornerback who earned a berth to the Pro Bowl and after last season the Falcons tagged Grimes as their franchise player and then went out and acquired Asante Samuel. In the season opener, it was revealed that Samuel and Grimes would start in the base defense with Robinson bumped to role as the nickel back.
However, a number of factors have come together since then that has Robinson playing at the expectation level that his contract set. For one, Robinson remained healthy for the entire offseason for the first time since joining the Falcons. Another factor was Mike Nolan's replacing Brian VanGorder as the team's defensive coordinator, implementing a scheme that has an allowed an aggressive player like Robinson to play more aggressively. Finally, the Falcons lost Grimes for the season in Week 1 against Kansas City with an ACL tear, necessitating Robinson's insertion back into the base defense as a starter.
Last week in the Falcons' 24-17 win over Washington, the Athens, Ga., native had half a sack and a late-game interception that helped to seal the victory. The week before, he forced his first fumble as a Falcon; previously, he had six in six seasons with Houston.
"The first two years he did not participate in our offseason," Falcons head coach Mike Smith, "Yeah, and the scheme is different. We're playing some things that probably are better suited for him. I think the most important thing is he's stayed healthy in the offseason. He hasn't missed a snap in (offseason team activities) or training camp, but he's off to a great start. He's playing with a lot of confidence and really playing physical. You need that physical presence. It kind of sets the tone for the receivers when they know they're going to be playing against a physical secondary."
For his part, Robinson, 30, gives much of the credit to Nolan.
"I would just say he's letting me be the player that I am," Robinson said. "I think that's the kind of bottom line. He's letting me go out and play my comfortable style of football, not changing the things I do. He's just saying, Dunta, I trust you to go out and make plays.' It's a lot easier for me. It's a lot more fun. It's paying off, man, and I'm feeling good."
He's become part of a defense that is tied for the league lead with a plus-10 turnover differential, collecting nine interceptions and five fumble recoveries a pace for 29 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries over 16 games entering Sunday's game with Oakland at the Georgia Dome. In comparison, last season the Falcons finished plus-8 (tied for eighth in the NFL) with 19 interceptions and 10 fumbles.
"I think they do an outstanding job of keying the quarterback and seeing the quarterback's eyes and they play extremely fast," Oakland head coach Dennis Allen said of the Falcons' secondary. "They play full speed on every play and they understand where the ball's going and do a good job of understanding route recognition. You know, they get a little bit of pressure on the quarterback, speed up the process. They've done an outstanding job on defense of taking the ball away. We've got to be aware of that."
Robinson's half-sack of elusive Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin IIII defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux received credit for the other half but Robinson made the play coming off the edge was the kind of play that could have resulted in a turnover. He went unblocked and delivered a trademark hard hit. Robinson cited the play as an example of Nolan's allowing the defensive players to do what they do best.
"I can't remember the last time I was called to blitz," he said. "I'm a football player first he's allowing me to play football. He's allowing me to be a part of the run game (defense). He's allowing me to blitz at times. These are things I do. I'm not just a cover-corner. I'm just a guy who wants to sit outside and not have any action all day."
Robinson said he never had a meeting with Nolan to ask for a different role nor to have the coach tell him he would be used differently. He thinks Nolan, a long-time defensive coordinator in the league who also served as San Francisco's head coach, knew what he could do from his days with the Texans. As a rookie in 2004, Robinson had three sacks and another in '05, but none again until Sunday.
"I like to get involved in the game and he's doing a great job of getting me involved early," Robinson said of Nolan, "and once that happens, you feel like you can make any play and then things start to go your way. That's the player I am."
That, apparently, is the player he is.