When the Falcons placed Desmond Trufant on injured reserve, Robert Alford, who recently celebrated his 28th birthday, was the oldest cornerback on their active roster.
At the time, every other CB in tow was participating in his first or second NFL campaign. This inexperience hasn't been a problem as some feared, however. While Trufant is undoubtedly missed, the pass coverage isn't suffering a great decline in his absence.
In fact, its numbers have only gotten better.
The Falcons have allowed just 18.2 points per game since their bye week; in that span, they've allowed more than 19 points in only one of five contests. Opponents have had an especially hard time through the air: The last handful of quarterbacks to face Atlanta has averaged 235 passing yards and, collectively, posted a 57.7 completion percentage.
A big reason why these stats are so low is the performance of Jalen Collins. Filling in for Trufant, the 2015 second-rounder has matured into someone who can take on the league's more physically imposing receivers, including Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina's 6-foot-5, 245-pound wideout.
According to Pro Football Focus, Collins allowed six catches on 14 targets for 80 yards in Week 16, during which he spent a lot of time matched up against Benjamin. He reeled in an interception, too – the first of his professional career.
Head coach Dan Quinn said Collins' play has been "really significant" following Trufant's injury, and that enduring hardship has allowed him to "come out the other end tougher, stronger and more resilient."
"To say he's Tru, that's not fair to any player to compare him to this, but what I can tell you is that we've totally counted and relied on him this matchup, this technique and I've really seen his level of play improve," Quinn added. "He's had to show a lot of grit this year to be out being even around our team for four games then in and out, inactive and then assuming a starting role. He's had to battle and I think sometimes when you have to go battle – and I think we can all relate to this – when you get tested and you come through, having a little bit of resiliency, it makes you stronger."
Collins wasn't the only Falcon to notch his first career INT vs. the Panthers. On the first defensive drive of the game, Brian Poole broke across the middle of the field and snagged a Cam Newton pass in front of Ed Dickson. Atlanta added a field goal on the ensuing drive to gain an early 10-0 edge.
As the Falcons' nickel back, Poole has established himself as an athlete capable of matching up with slot receivers one-on-one and, as he showed when he picked off Newton, thriving in the Cover 3 zone.
Since the bye, QBs have posted a 71.9 passer rating when targeting Poole and have recorded zero touchdowns on those throws.
"He's played a lot and he's had a good impact," Quinn said of the University of Florida product. "He really has a very good understanding of playing nickel. When you play inside you deal with a different variety of guys. Some guys are very quick guys who can try to beat man-to-man routes on your leverage. He's a very good zone player and he's a good tackler. Those are the things that allows him to play well at nickel.
"In the NFL today, you play a lot of defense and offense for that matter in three wide receiver sets. Maybe from year's past from covering the teams that position didn't get as much recognition but now that position, our nickel back, he's a starter. We're pleased with Brian's progression."
Although Trufant hasn't suited up for a game in nearly two months, he remains an important member of the team. Poole said Monday on the Coach's Show that Atlanta's Pro Bowl CB "helps me out a lot" by sharing his wisdom and guidance. Collins said Trufant has taught him plenty of tips that he's picked up over time, such as the right way to break down tape.
And safety Ricardo Allen, dubbed one of the "old guys" in the secondary at 25 years old, has seen Trufant aid the Falcons by providing the kind of knowledge that can't be gleaned from the gridiron.
"He tells us stuff that he sees from the sideline, because once you're not in the pressure moment anymore, you see things much clearer than the people who are actually on the field," Allen said.
"So, if you take some time and actually pull back, you notice some things that you may not have noticed as a player. And he's always around helping us, telling us what he sees, like what kind of releases the wide receiver is going to try to get and all that kind of stuff. He's just been helping us out a lot."
On Sunday, Poole and Collins will be challenged by the Saints, who, thanks to a productive season by Drew Brees, have one of the best offenses in football. A strong outing against New Orleans' receivers could help lock up the No. 2 seed in the NFC. And it would inspire a lot of confidence in a young defensive backfield heading into the playoffs.
"Everyone has to be ready. We're always pushing each other to be better, and we know that we have to play big, because if we go down, we don't really have too many people left," Collins said. "It just continues with hard work. My guys in here believe in me and give me the opportunity to show what I can do. Ultimately, it's about having confidence in myself."