Losing Grimes to a torn Achilles tendon means the Falcons must face Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos on Monday night without their best cornerback.
Christopher Owens and Dominique Franks have struggled in the past for Atlanta, but the team is counting on both players to take plenty of snaps.
Falcons coach Mike Smith says that Robert McClain, who signed as a free agent in January, and Terrence Johnson, who signed as a free agent on Tuesday, will compete for snaps, too, as the season goes on.
“We’ve got guys that have played in games that are going to have to step up and take that role,” Smith said on Tuesday. “And maybe a couple of guys instead of one based on the game plan that week. We’re going to have to disperse our defense a little bit differently than what we did this past week.”
Against the Broncos, longtime NFL veterans Asante Samuel (left side) and Dunta Robinson (right side) will start at cornerback.
The nickel back will likely be either Owens or Franks, both of whom said they feel wanted even though neither has yet to play well enough to compete for a permanent starting job with the Falcons.
Owens joined the team in 2009 as a third-round draft pick from San Jose State. He has started 10 of 47 career games at left cornerback or nickel back, mostly because of injuries to Grimes and former teammates Brian Williams and Kelvin Hayden.
But Owens believes Smith and secondary coach Tim Lewis have given him a chance to move up the depth chart. He just hasn’t seized the opportunity and has been relegated to playing gunner on special teams.
“You’ve got to compete and you’ve got to battle,” Owens said. “Whatever happens on the field, you’ve got to trust the coaches will put the best player in, so I didn’t worry about starting or not.”
It will be the first time that Owens has faced Manning, a four-time NFL MVP.
“This is like facing Mike Tyson in a 12-round bout, but I’m excited for the opportunity,” Owens said. “It’s unfortunate what happened with Grimes, but the next man’s got to step up, and that’s the mentality you’ve got to have with this team.”
The Falcons (1-0) won their season opener last week at Kansas City 40-24. Denver (1-0) beat Pittsburgh 31-19 as Manning returned from a 20-month injury layoff to throw his 400th career touchdown pass in just his 208th game, all but one of them with Indianapolis.
“He didn’t look like he missed a season,” Smith said. “He looked like he missed a play or two. I was very impressed with the way he ran the offense there in Denver. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
Franks is excited to have a second chance with the Falcons after they cut him on Aug. 31. He visited and worked out for Miami, Kansas City and Pittsburgh in a three-day span before Atlanta called early last week.
“I was getting ready to go to Detroit the next day,” Franks said. “But not too many people are blessed with that opportunity to be able to come back to a team that has cut him.
“So it’s just my job from here on out to do whatever I need to do to study harder, to play harder, to make sure I never have to go through that again.”
The Falcons drafted Franks in the fifth round out of Oklahoma in 2010. He started four of his 14 games last season, but appeared in just two games as a rookie and played last week at Kansas City.
“Really, I didn’t want to leave anyway, so getting that call, I was so glad to be able to come back,” Franks said. “I did have to change my (jersey) number, but a number’s not too important as long as I get the opportunity to be back on this team and prove that I am a good player.”
McClain, a seventh-round pick for Carolina in 2010, played in 16 games as a rookie, but hasn’t taken a snap in an NFL game since. Johnson was an undrafted free agent in 2010 and signed with New England, but didn’t play until getting two starts in 10 games last season with Indianapolis.