In every season, there's an "unknown" player that emerges to make an impact on nearly every team. This year's version of that guy for the Falcons is Robert McClain.
When McClain made it through roster cuts after training camp, many wondered who he was. The coaches saw what they needed in a player entering his third year in the NFL, all with different teams. They saw a competitive guy who could provide solid depth at the cornerback position. It turned out to be a wise choice, but they may have never envisioned the player that would be thrust into a starting role with the Falcons after injuries depleted the depth at what looked to be one of the deepest positions on the roster when the season began.
As injuries took out Brent Grimes and then Chris Owens, McClain began to get more playing time. In Week 2 against Denver, Asante Samuel's in-game injury took him out for a while and McClain's time came. The first quarter of action that saw the Falcons pick off Peyton Manning three times was the first time since 2010 (then with the Panthers) that McClain saw extensive playing time and he came through with the first interception of his career. Since then, all he's done is play a solid brand of football that has made head coach Mike Smith and the staff of coaches and talent evaluators with the Falcons look brilliant.
"The coaches always tell you to prepare because anyone can go down," McClain said. "What happened is unfortunate to Brent Grimes, but it gave me the opportunity to go out there and show the coaches what I can do in actual game situations."
Since Week 2, McClain has played the role of nickel cornerback, a role that blends aspects of three positions: linebacker, safety and corner. He's got five passes defensed this season in addition to his interception and last week with Samuel banged up again, he played in 88 percent of the defensive snaps, leading the team in tackles and providing a spark early in the game when few Falcons were playing their best.
"McClain had to move from nickel to left corner, and had some right corner snaps as well," Smith said on Monday. "He played all the positions there in the secondary, in terms of the corner and the nickel corner for us. He even had to play in our dime package. It's nice to see those guys were able to step up."
According to ProFootballFocus, McClain has had positive pass coverage grades in five of the eight games he's played, including Sunday against the Cardinals. McClain ended with seven tackles and one pass defensed and was a support in the run game, as well.
In college at Connecticut, McClain experienced a similar circumstance to what he's gone through this season, hopping around the secondary from depth to nickel to outside corner. He says it helped him prepare for this season, a chance he knew he'd get if he continued to use his competiveness to propel him. McClain's been a pleasant surprise for the Falcons this season and in some ways has been a lifesaver, stepping up when other key players exited.
He fits right into the aggressive nature of Mike Nolan's defensive scheme along with players like Dunta Robinson, William Moore and Samuel. He packs a punch as Cardinals running back LaRod Stephens-Howling can attest to.
"I don't care if somebody catches the ball, I'm going to keep fighting with them the whole game," he said. "I'm on the field and I want to be the aggressor. I want to play on my terms and make the offense play on those terms."