FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. --No. 28 is not a favorite number for members of the Falcons' secondary.
(But that's not intended as a slight toward safety Thomas DeCoud).
The number 28 hits a sour note with the group since it was Atlanta's final rank against the pass last season. As the team began mini camp on Friday, the secondary was clearly on a mission for 2010.
"We were 28th last year. We want to be way better than that this year," said cornerback Dunta Robinson, who signed with Atlanta on March 6. "We want to be No. 1 but we've got to put the work in and it starts today. Coming out here and competing against this offense and these receivers will make us a lot better and we'll make them a lot better.
"My main thing is I'm trying to lead these guys by what I do on the football field," he added. "I'm not talking a whole lot. You just show them that this is the NFL. You're going to win some battles, you're going to lose some battles. What determines what kind of player you're going to be is how you bounce back after you lose a battle or two. That's kind of what I'm trying to show these guys."
The signing of Robinson gives experience and leadership to a group that was young, inexperienced and -- in a way -- left on its own last season after the Week 6 knee injury took nine-year veteran Brian Williams out of the equation.
The addition has already paid off.
"It's great to have that veteran leadership we had a little bit with Brian Williams before he was injured," said DeCoud, who won the free safety job in training camp then played all 16 games and contributed 113 tackles, seven passes defended, a fumble recovery, two forced fumbles, two sacks and three interceptions. "That veteran savvy, that veteran leadership in the secondary that we've needed because we've been young for a couple of years now. Now that we have Brian and Dunta it's going to make us better as a secondary as a whole."
The youth was exposed over the season's final 10 games, as three-fourths of the secondary -- cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Christopher Owens and DeCoud -- totaled four years of experience (two fewer than its fourth member, strong safety Erik Coleman).
But that was 2009.
This is 2010.
"It's definitely a new mindset, a whole new team," said Coleman, who led the secondary last season with a career-high 139 stops. "We have a couple of new characters, different guys are going to be playing different roles. We want to win the Super Bowl this year. That preparation starts right now. We have to continue to work towards that."
Coleman believes last season's baptism-by-fire will serve the entire group better heading into the new season.
"That's the only way you can learn is by being thrown into the fire," he said. "Those guys responded well last year and they grew up."
Grimes, who finished with four picks over his final three games, including his first multi-interception game in a Week 15 victory of the AFC Championship Game participant New York Jets, personifies the confidence of the entire unit.
"It was huge that I finished strong," he said. "I never doubted what I could do, but it felt good to actually have it happen and know that it's out there and people know what you can do."
And while short memory is usually a secondary's best friend, Grimes feels subtle reminders of last season can serve as inspiration.
"If that's what it takes to help our defense that's what we'll do," he said. "We're going to use that as motivation to get better so we're helping the team win."
In the first practices of mini-camp, the group has established a little game-within-a-game to keep the spirits and motivation high.
"We call them B.D.'s or ball disruptions," said DeCoud. "Whether it's a pass break-up, we strip a guy, or get an interception, we count them all and tally them up in the meeting room."
In fact, Robinson said that competitive spirit was set before any members of the secondary faced off for the first time with receivers.
"With the first breakdown we had before we lined up against the receivers, we said, 'This is the first step toward us becoming the best secondary in the NFL,'" he said. "We have to go out there like we can do it. We have the talent to do it. We just have to have that belief in ourselves. That's the tone you try to set. That we are the best. Not one individual. We are the best secondary in the NFL."
**Former Foes Now Falcons Friends
**Prior to the start of this weekend's mini-camp, the last time safety Shann Schillinger and wide receiver Brandyn Harvey were on the same football field was last Dec. 18, at Finley Stadium, in Chattanooga, Tenn. That day, they were fierce rivals -- or at least their schools were -- as Schillinger and his Montana Grizzlies battled Harvey's Villanova Wildcats for the FCS Championship. Harvey's squad came out on top, winning 23-21.
When the rookies renewed acquaintances at Flowery Branch they couldn't help but reminisce.
"He gave me a little bit of a hard time and rightfully so," said Schillinger, a sixth-round selection of the Falcons. "It brought back memories. It seemed like yesterday that they beat us in the National Championship game."
"I didn't really say much," said Harvey, an undrafted free agent. "I said something the first day I met him, but besides that, nothing too much. That's over. We played them, it happened,"
While neither remembered playing against each other, either that December day or in Friday's camp, they admitted they're friends now, with a common goal.
On a related note, Head Coach Mike Smith was asked about Harvey, who's had steady hands thus far in camp.
"[Harvey] has caught my eye," said Smith. "He has very good length and height and has done some very good things catching the football."
**Third-year cornerback Grimes may look quiet and unassuming but apparent shyness actually masks a wilder side.
When the mood strikes the 5-foot-10, 181-pound native of Philadelphia will perform a spectacular feat of athleticism that shows just what makes him one of the most physically gifted players on the Falcons' roster. Grimes, who was signed as a free agent in 2007 after playing college ball at Shippensburg University can hop a John Deere Gator truck, which stands about five feet wide and about four feet high -- length-wise.
That leaping an object four feet high and closer to ten feet long.
"Sometimes you just do what you do to give people something to get excited about," said Grimes, adding with a laugh, "It can get boring around here sometimes."
Unfortunately, while he goes airborne completely for the entertainment of others, he doesn't take requests.
"I never plan it," he said. "I just do it some days. It's stuck with me. I have fun with it and people get a kick out of it."
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