Northern_Falcon Posted September 9, 2011 Share Posted September 9, 2011 Falcons' Hayden ready to step upSourceFLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons enter their season opener on Sunday with their starting lineup set -- except for one key position.While the coaching staff might have decided privately as to who might have won that last job, they have not let the secret slip publicly.That position happens to be nickelback -- which proved the team's Achilles' heel last year in the playoffs -- and it also happens to be a spot where the Falcons officially announced the signing of veteran Kelvin Hayden one week ago today.During the preseason, the Falcons had hoped that third-year man Christopher Owens, who played the position for most of the first half of last season and then in the team's disastrous showing in their lone playoff game in January, or Dominique Franks, a 2010 fifth-round pick, would step to the fore.The signing of Hayden, 28, seems to reflect a dissatisfaction with the above younger duo. Much like the acquisition of Brian Williams to play that same position in 2009, the Falcons are getting a player in Hayden who was cut for salary cap reasons. In six seasons in Indianapolis, Hayden had 37 passes defended and nine interceptions and, most notably, a 56-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Colts' 29-17 victory over the Bears in Super Bowl XLI.Coming off a season-ending neck injury that has limited him to 20 games over the last two seasons, Hayden was set to earn $6 million this season when the Colts cut him to make room for quarterback Peyton Manning's five-year, $90-million contract extension."You got to understand it is a business," said Hayden, who has said on multiple occasions that his neck is fine. "It's a game, but it's a business as well. Things don't always go in your favor. I learned that the hard way. I take it and ran with it. I understand the situation and the guy they were trying to free cap space for it. He's well deserving."That might be an understatement. In 2009 when Jacksonville cut Williams, they also were asking him to take a pay cut -- though not for any Manning-caliber player. When he refused, they waived him and he supplanted Chevis Jackson, who did not inspire confidence as the nickelback with his preseason.The big difference was that Williams played for Falcons head coach Mike Smith when Smith was the defensive coordinator for the Jaguars, so he stepped into a familiar situation.It's not quite the same with Hayden."Well, I think the similarities would lie in the fact that there's a new player coming into your system and there's a big language change, so all the communications are different," said Falcons defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder in comparing Hayden's situation to that of Williams'. "What would be similar with the two of them would be (that) they're both NFL veterans, so that most of the things schematically that you're doing, they're familiar -- they have a familiarity with."It's just a different type of call and there might be some technique differences that need to be polished up to get the players on the same page with how we do it. But both those guys (safety James Sanders whom the Falcons also signed last Thursday) are guys who will pick it up because they're smart players and they've been in the league a long time."One factor in Hayden's favor is the nature of defense itself. While offenses might have myriad variations, defense -- especially nickelback -- is perhaps not as multi-faceted."It's similar in a couple ways, but once you play Cover 2, Cover 3, you can only play it so many ways," said Falcons veteran linebacker Mike Peterson, a former Colt himself. "So it's basically just get the lingo down, speaking the same terminology, and I'm sure he'll adapt. He'll pick it up fast."Smith told reporters after practice on Thursday that Hayden would be active for the game, along with Sanders, but he did not reveal whether Hayden would start. (The Falcons consider the nickelback a starting position because they use the package so often.) Earlier in the week, VanGorder said he was confident that Hayden would be ready to play."I'm confident," he said. "Again, he's played football in this league for years and we already know what he's done and we can use that background and that knowledge in our system and have an effective player."While most players took last Friday, Saturday and Sunday off following the team's final preseason game, Hayden gave himself a crash course in the defense. He took the playbook home -- or whatever passes for home right now -- and called defensive backs coach Alvin Reynolds when he had questions.Hayden admitted that he will not have the book memorized by Sunday, but if the Falcons scale down their playbook when he's in the game, he should be fine."Of course, I don't know the whole defense," Hayden said, "but if they're putting in a defense that's just going to be called on Sunday and I can have those down pat, then I'm fine and if I can just learn defenses that are going to be run week in week out, I think I can handle that challenge."Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said in a conference call with Atlanta reporters on Wednesday that Chicago might target the Falcons' new secondary players if the chance presents itself."If we get the opportunity," Cutler said. "We don't really kind of hammer at one certain guy we're going at. Just depending on what their coverage is, that's going to tell me where to go with the ball. So if it comes up where they've got a new guy in there and we've got the coverage we want against the play we got and we got a chance to test ‘em, we will."On a few occasions last year, the Falcons saw opposing teams target their nickelback -- Owens in particular. He had 13 tackles in a 39-32 win over Cincinnati as the Bengals went after him. He lost his job after that to Williams, who was coming off season-ending knee surgery in ‘09, but regained it when Williams went out again late in the regular season with another knee injury (which is why the Falcons elected not to re-sign him). Then in January, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers torched the Falcons in a 48-21 win.If Hayden can help the Falcons improve their 22nd-ranked pass defense from a season ago, it will go a long ways towards helping on Sunday -- and beyond."Especially coming out of the system in Indianapolis," Peterson said of his new teammate, "you got to be a ballplayer." 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