FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — There was nothing Desmond Trufant could do.
As the Atlanta Falcons squandered a lead of historic proportions in the Super Bowl, their best pass defender was stuck on the sideline, merely a spectator.
"Obviously, it wasn't easy to watch," Trufant said after practice Thursday. "We're just trying to get better and move forward. We've got a lot to prove this year. That's really what we're focused on."
Trufant went down a year ago with a season-ending shoulder injury, sitting out Atlanta's run to the title game for only the second time in franchise history. That was hard enough to endure, but it only got worse when the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead over the Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, losing the first overtime game in Super Bowl history.
Brady led the comeback by completing 43 of 62 passes for a staggering 466 yards.
No one will ever know if Trufant's presence might have made a difference.
Maybe, just maybe, he would've knocked down one of those throws to preserve the Falcons' first championship.
"It wasn't easy," Trufant said. "I'm not going to lie."
Even though he played only nine games before his injury, the Falcons knew how valuable Trufant was to their blueprint for building one of the league's best defenses through youth, speed and aggressiveness.
In April, he signed a five-year, $69 million contract extension that includes $42 million in guaranteed money.
"I always feel like I've got something to prove," Trufant said. "I'm trying to compete, trying to get better, trying to win. I hate losing. Regardless of (the contract) is, I'm trying to get better and take my game to the next level."
Trufant, who was the 22nd overall pick in 2013, did his best to stay involved with the team while recovering from the injury. He not only took younger defensive backs such as Jalen Collins and Brian Poole under his wing, he spent more time in the film room — studying offensive schemes, spotting tendencies, looking for ways to come back stronger than ever.
"I was doing whatever I could to help the team in any way I could," Trufant said. "It helped me to see the game from a different perspective. It happened for a reason. I've just got to keep pushing and move forward this year, try to get better at something every day."
A week into training camp, coach Dan Quinn is thrilled with the return of his lockdown cornerback.
"It's the quickness," Quinn said. "He can match up on different players. He can play nickel, play outside, play inside, all the different spots. He's got very good anticipation, route recognition, information where he can say, 'OK, he's about to break out, so I've got to undercut the guy.' Those are things that come with experience. He's been in the fire, so to speak, for a long time. He knows some of those tricks now."
Trufant is fully recovered from the shoulder injury, meaning there are no limitations in training camp. He's the unquestioned leader of a rapidly improving secondary that includes another seasoned cornerback, Robert Alford, along with safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal.
All around the defense, the Falcons show signs of developing into one of the league's top units, from sack leader Vic Beasley Jr. to first-round pick Takkarist McKinley to a dynamic group of young linebackers that features Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell, both of whom started as rookies.
"It's a lot of talent," Trufant said, his smile growing bigger and bigger. "A lot of young guys, young guys that can run, that can make plays, that are aggressive, that can cover, that can tackle. We've got a wide variety of guys. I'm excited. We've just got to keep putting that work in, keep grinding. It's not always going to be perfect, but we've just got keep pushing toward that."
He's eager to get back to the Super Bowl.
Only this time, as more than a spectator.
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