(Eds: Updates. With AP Photos.)
By CHARLES ODUM
AP Sports Writer
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) - After Asante Samuel intercepted Eli Manning's first pass on Sunday, the cornerback approached Falcons teammate Thomas DeCoud, who leads the team in interceptions.
DeCoud says Samuel joked "`I'm about to catch you."'
Not so fast.
"I said `OK, but just wait,"' DeCoud said. "I ended up getting mine. We can joke about it like that."
DeCoud, a safety, added to his team lead with his sixth interception later in the Falcons' 34-0 win over the Giants.
Samuel has three interceptions but is trailing both Atlanta safeties. William Moore has picked off four passes, giving the Falcons the NFL's only tandem at the safety positions to each have four or more interceptions.
Falcons coach Mike Smith said DeCoud and Moore should be considered one of the league's top pair of safeties.
"I think our two safeties have played as well as any tandem in the league," Smith said after Tuesday's practice for Saturday night's game at Detroit. "They're making a lot of plays on the ball. ... They've been very productive and when their opportunities have come, they have not missed."
DeCoud was a third-round pick in 2008. Moore was a second-round pick in 2009.
Smith said the two safeties "are really coming into their own in terms of their maturation processes, Thomas in his fifth year and William in his fourth."
Another key has been first-year defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's scheme, which gives the defensive backs more freedom to create big plays.
"It's kind of a combination of the new scheme and the reins being loosened a little bit, and also the kind of work we did in the offseason," DeCoud said. "Both William and I paid a lot of time, a lot of attention, to our ball skills and our ability to get the ball when it's in the air and make plays on it."
Moore's four interceptions, one shy of his career high set in 2010, have come in only 12 games. He has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury and his status is uncertain for the game at Detroit.
Moore ran on the side but did not practice on Tuesday. Veteran Chris Hope started the last two games as Moore's replacement.
Hope, in his 11th season, is an authority on top safety tandems. He began his career with four seasons in Pittsburgh, including two seasons starting alongside Troy Polamalu. Hope then played six seasons with Tennessee, where he was paired with Michael Griffin at safety.
Hope, 32, said DeCoud and Moore deserve to be mentioned with the elite players at the position.
"It's been a blessing to sit back and watch those young guys mature into what I think are two of the best safeties in the league," Hope said. "I've had the opportunity to form two of the best safety tandems in the league myself. To see those two guys come in and play at the level they've played all season has been good."
Moore is third on the team with 75 tackles and has two forced fumbles. DeCoud has 64 tackles.
"Those guys are flying around back there," said linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. "They're making plays. They're covering guys. A lot of safeties sit back in the middle of the field and make the plays. Those guys do a lot. Mike Nolan has a great plan for them to get down in the box and they do a good job with their disguises. That's one of the biggest things a lot of people don't see."
DeCoud said the safeties would receive more recognition if the Falcons (12-2) can win in the playoffs. Atlanta can clinch home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs if they beat Detroit.
"I think we're right up there at the top, but until we can get a little hardware on our hands, that has yet to be proven," DeCoud said.
NOTES: Backup OL Joe Hawley returned Tuesday from a four-game suspension after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. Smith said the Falcons have a one-week roster exemption before they must make a move to clear a spot for Hawley, who was center Todd McClure's top backup before the suspension.