The football gods (if there are any out there) don’t make many like Asante Samuel. When people ask whether he’s cocky, brash or confident, Samuel checks off all of the above. In a league where coaches play everything close to the vest and worry about their job like they do every inch of the field, Samuel has no care, recklessly attacking the ball downhill to instill fear into quarterbacks throwing to his left — a side that he prefers simply because that’s “where the ball is coming” from a right-handed quarterback. And run defense? Samuel has never seen a tackle that he likes.
But an interception? Now that’s something that he likes quite a bit.
Forty-seven interceptions were attributed to Samuel’s name going into Sunday’s game against Eli Manning and the New York Giants, and three of them — along with 10 pass breakups — were recorded against Manning in the past. On the second play of Sunday’s game — the first pass play — Samuel got his 48th total career interception and fourth career pick against Eli Manning.
The interception came in the only way an Asante Samuel interception can come: a confident jump of a route. Samuel, who’s brought a load of confidence and swagger to the Falcons defense, was aligned at a 45-degree angle with his hips and eyes in the direction of the Giants quarterback before the snap. He gave a seven-yard cushion to wide receiver Hakeem Nicks before the snap, which reeked of confidence, and was preparing to make a play on the ball if it came in his way.
Before the game, Manning spoke of the cornerbacks abilities:
“He’s obviously a guy who makes a lot of plays and kind of has his own style, his own technique. When he sees something, he’s aggressive and he always seems to be around the ball. You always have to keep your eyes on him.”
As Manning was going through his pre-snap identifications of the defense while under center, he first looked to his far right. Samuel was standing across from Nicks and seemingly paying no attention to the receiver, instead focusing his eyes on Manning right up until the snap. When the ball was snapped, the Falcons rotated their safeties to create a one deep shell and Samuel played off-man coverage, shuffling and staying in front of Nicks as he watched the telling eyes of Manning.
Manning dropped back with a slight drift to his right, where rookie running back David Wilson was attempting to block blitzing outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. Weatherspoon ran through Wilson, plunging him into the ground, and was just shy of hitting Manning as he threw the ball. Under pressure, Manning attempted to find Nicks, who was running a Curl route. The pass was to be delivered on time and before Nicks broke off his route, but as Manning raised his shoulder to throw the ball, Samuel planted his foot in the ground and started coming downhill before Nicks did.
Once the ball arrived, it wasn’t in the hands of Nicks, but Samuel instead. He jumped the route and bobbled the pass before finally bringing it in, returning the interception for a meager six yards, but that was enough to set up a brief opening touchdown drive by the offense four plays later.
The interception was one that seemed routine, which it was for Samuel, but it simply isn’t for most. Few defensive backs are confident enough to break off their shuffle or backpedal, plant their foot in the ground, and go for the interception.
In his book Finding the Winning Edge, Bill Walsh listed all of the desired traits in a quality cornerback, one of which was confidence. Walsh elaborated:
“In addition to the physical qualities required to play cornerback, the cornerback must be emotionally resilient. He must be able to maintain his composure, even when he has allowed a pass to be completed in a critical situation or allowed a touchdown pass to be thrown to his man. He must have inner confidence [Walsh later said "to the point of cockiness"] that enables him to continue to function at a high level of performance regardless of what has occurred in the game.”
This description describes Samuel quite well, who celebrated the interception of Manning by closing his arms and leaning to his right. He’s been beaten in coverage numerous times throughout his career as Eagles fans know, but he’s always bounced back with a short memory and a big play, which is what the Falcons will need more of as they continue their path to the playoffs.