It seems like forever ago, but when training camp began in July, Robert Alford immediately showed Falcons fans a few things. First, everyone noticed the rookie corner's physical play. He wasn't quite the smooth technician that his fellow rookie, first-round Desmond Trufant, was, but the second-rounder did offer a style of aggressive corner play that was exciting to watch.
Also like Trufant, Alford showed he had a short memory, a critical aspect of a corner's game. Head coach Mike Smith told reporters nearly every other day that they were putting their young corners to the test, pitting them against Julio Jones and Roddy White, two of the best in the league, daily in practice. The rookies hung in there, while sometimes getting taught the NFL matchup of corner vs. receiver is quite different from the college one.
On Saturday against the Titans, Alford got another one of those lessons, the kind that if he learns from it, will only make him better. Thrust into the first-string spotlight in the first half when Asante Samuel went down, Alford lined up opposite Trufant and got to work. It wasn't long before the Titans and quarterback Jake Locker started testing both rookies in the passing game and the results were mixed to say the least.
Alford gave up some big gains in the passing game and he was certainly tested in the most action he's seen in the preseason and head coach Mike Smith said there were a number of reasons for that. Smith also said Alford very well might get better because of this game.
"He didn't make some of the plays that were presented to him," Smith said. "Some of them were technical and some of them were mental. Those are experiences that will be learning experiences for him. I still believe he's going to be an outstanding player. He got baptized under fire (Saturday) and had to go in there and play when we had Asante Samuel out in the first quarter."
Alford led the team Saturday night with 53 snaps, 11 more than Robert McClain's second-highest snap count. He played 84 percent of the game and showed that short memory that is so important. Almost every corner will get beat from time to time, but will he come back for more and keep showing up? Alford did and put together a solid ball game, all things considered.
In addition to his six tackles, he added three pass deflections. In the third quarter, he grabbed the first interception of his career. It won't count in the record books until the regular season, but Alford in intercepting Rusty Smith's pass showed he can bounce back and still make game-changing plays.
So far this preseason Alford has 10 tackles in three games and five passes defensed along with that one interception. He's shown a lot of promise and other moments that should be expected for a rookie learning to play meaningful snaps in the NFL. Smith said Alford's game against the Titans will only make him better and an improved Robert Alford means more game-changing plays.
"He had, what I would call, a learning experience day," Smith said after Saturday's loss. "Those things will pay dividends for us down the road for us as a football team. I think the things that he experienced tonight will make him a better football player. "