clear
Monday August 31st, 2015 9:25AM

Falcons secondary gets big boost from backups

By The Associated Press
FLOWERY BRANCH -- Robert McClain was one of those offseason signings that hardly anyone notices.

A seventh-round draft pick, he had already been cut by two teams when he caught on with the Atlanta Falcons.

The 5-foot-9 cornerback turned out to be a steal.

McClain has been a huge part of the Falcons' injury plagued secondary, which lost star cornerback Brent Grimes in the very first game and is now dealing with Asante Samuel's ailing right shoulder.

"He looks like a first-round pick to me," Atlanta safety William Moore said Wednesday. "Dude can play some ball."

McClain has broken up eight passes, which is tied for second on the team behind Samuel, and has allowed the Falcons to carry on just fine with their plan at the beginning of the year - to have three cornerbacks on the field in most situations, teaming with Samuel (when healthy) and Dunta Robinson. The Falcons (11-1) have already clinched the NFC South championship and are in prime position to lock up home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.

Atlanta travels to Carolina (3-9) on Sunday.

Back in January, when the Falcons signed McClain shortly after their first-round playoff loss to the Giants, Moore got a tip from secondary coach Tim Lewis:

Keep an eye on this guy.

"I could tell he's a heck of an athlete," Moore said. "Coach Lewis gave us the heads up before he came in. He said, `We got us a steal right there.' From day one, Robert stepped in there and just took over. He's been lights out already, and I know for sure he's going to get better down the stretch."

McClain caught the eye of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan from the first day of training camp.

"He's kind of a quieter guy on the field," Ryan said. "But he makes plays. That's one thing that stuck out to everybody in training camp. When you went against him, he didn't back down from anybody. He's got this quiet confidence to him."

McClain made the team, but was inactive for the opener at Kansas City. That's when Grimes, perhaps the team's best cornerback, went down with an Achilles' injury.

"There's always going to be injuries on a team every year, but you don't expect it to be that early in the season," McClain said. "It was sad to see that happen. Grimes is a great player. I learned a lot just being around him during the offseason."

Those lessons clearly paid off. McClain dressed out the following week and broke up one of Peyton Manning's passes in a victory over Denver. McClain has played a major role ever since.

Just don't expect the 24-year-old to get complacent. Not after being cut by both Carolina and Jacksonville early in his career.

"I'm always going to have that hunger," McClain said. "Nothing is guaranteed. You've got to keep working hard every day, keep showing the coaches and the other players that you can play."

McClain isn't the only cornerback to make a surprising contribution.

Last week, Samuel was knocked out of the game early by his lingering shoulder injury, forcing Christopher Owens to play an expanded role in the secondary. Though largely a disappointment during his four-year career, he broke up two passes and made three tackles against Drew Brees and the high-scoring New Orleans Saints, a huge contributor in the 23-13 victory.

"I'm not getting too high," said Owens, who was a third-round pick in 2009 but has mainly been limited to special teams. "I've had some growing pains. I'm still having them. I'm not perfect. But it's a beginning."

The Falcons are just thankful to have more depth in the secondary than even they realized at the beginning of the season.

With the cornerbacks locking down things on the outside, the safeties are able to freelance more in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's system. Both are having the sort of seasons that will likely lead to Pro Bowl consideration. Thomas DeCoud has a team-high five interceptions, while Moore leads in tackles (105) and has four picks.

"We have not missed a step," DeCoud said. "Everybody is really comfortable with each other. We all get along very well. That allows a guy who hasn't gotten many reps to come in and feel comfortable with the guys around him. That's a testament not only to their talent but our camaraderie as a secondary."
© Copyright 2015 AccessWDUN.com
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
Tech beats Southern California in Sun Bowl
Tevin Washington threw a touchdown pass and ran for another score to help Georgia Tech beat Southern California 21-7 on Monday in the Sun Bowl.
5:54PM ( 2 years ago )
Top 10 sports stories of the year: 2012 one for the history books
2012 has been all things to all people in the sports world. The last 12 months have run the gamut of emotions and given fans and spectators much to awe, rue and everything in between.
2:33PM ( 2 years ago )
College Football Hall to break ground in Atlanta
Groundbreaking for the new College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta will be Jan. 28 and the museum is scheduled to open in the fall of 2014.
2:15PM ( 2 years ago )
Sports
Williams, Horford pace Hawks past Indiana
Lou Williams had 21 points and a career-high 12 assists, Al Horford added 20 points and the Atlanta Hawks won their fourth straight, 109-100 over the Indiana Pacers on Saturday night.
10:19PM ( 2 years ago )
Gwinnett wallops Greenville, 6-2
Five different Gladiators racked up multiple points, as Gwinnett dominated the Greenville Road Warriors 6-2 Saturday night at the BI-LO Center to move into a tie atop the South Division with Greenville.
10:05PM ( 2 years ago )
Teague leads Hawks past Cavaliers, 102-94
Jeff Teague scored a career-high 27 points and the Atlanta Hawks scored the game's final nine points to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 102-94 on Friday night.
10:26PM ( 2 years ago )
Professional Sports
5 things: What we learned from Week 1 of high school football
Here’s a look at five things we learned from week 1 of the high school football season...
5:17PM ( 7 hours from now )
Carter's cancer rekindles memories of 1980 Olympic boycott
Thirty-five years after his hopes for a gold medal were dashed by Jimmy Carter's boycott of the Moscow Olympics, Craig Beardsley is at peace.
10:53PM ( 10 hours ago )
Braves' woes continue in 'demoralizing' 20-6 loss to Yankees
A Braves team that was at .500 through 84 games has since been in a downward slide that gained speed with three straight losses to the Yankees.
10:50PM ( 10 hours ago )
Turner Field US flag at half-staff, players' families deal with grief after fan dies in fall
ATLANTA (AP) — The U.S. flag flew at half-staff at Turner Field on Sunday, one day after a fan died following his fall from the upper deck into the lower-level stands during a game between the Atlanta...
7:26PM ( 13 hours ago )
Jones cruises to Truck win in Canada, takes points lead
Two weeks ago in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Alex Tagliani got turned out of the lead by Regan Smith and lost his shot at a win.
By Stephanie Wallcraft-NASCAR Wire Service
6:17PM ( 15 hours ago )