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.”