Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson, for one, is not surprised to see Robert McClain’s rapid ascension from obscurity to opportunistic playmaker.
“Playing in this league nine years, I understand anything can happen on any given Sunday,” Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “If you are up, you’ve just got to be ready because you never know what can happen.”
It’s cliché because, sometimes, it’s true. Just look at the serious of circumstances that led to McClain making a big play for the Falcons against Denver on Monday and now possibly filling a key role Sunday at San Diego.
Odds were McClain would be cut before the season. Instead, he made the team after a strong preseason.
Because of Atlanta’s depth at cornerback it seemed likely McClain would be on the inactive list most weeks. Then Brent Grimes suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the season-opening game and McClain was elevated to the active roster for Monday’s game against Denver.
Still, Grimes didn’t figure to see much playing time against the Broncos because Atlanta still had old pros Robinson and Asante Samuel in addition to backups Dominique Franks and Christopher Owens. That all changed when both Owens and then Samuel left with injuries in the first quarter.
Suddenly McClain was on the field and Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley was running a route on his side of the field. Peyton Manning passed to Stokley but McClain broke on the ball and stepped in front of Stokley to make a leaping interception.
It was McClain’s first interception in 17 career games. He downplayed his the effort, saying “someone is going to make a play that makes a difference” when all 11 players are doing their jobs and the play call is right.
Falcons coach Mike Smith, however, said the “very feisty” McClain has a knack for making plays.
“Every time that he’s gotten an opportunity to go out on the field, he’s made something happen,” Smith said. “He did that again [Monday]. He got in for a couple snaps, had the nice interception, nice return. He’s a guy that’s played a little bit in the league, but doesn’t have a whole lot of game experience.”
McClain could gain more at San Diego. Owens is in the league’s concussion protocol after suffering a head injury against Denver; if he doesn’t play, McClain is in line to be at least the fourth quarterback.
McClain hasn’t played significant snaps since 2010, when he played in all 16 games with two starts as a rookie with Carolina. After the Panthers cut him before the 2011 season he caught on with Jacksonville for a couple weeks in December but stayed on the inactive list.
Now this could be another chance for McClain to show he deserves to stick in the league.
“I’m excited but, at the same time, I’ve got to do my job,” he said. “I’m ready to do my job.”
If Owens is out Sunday it’s possible McClain’s role could be expanded beyond just being the sixth defensive back in passing situations. Smith said Franks “did a nice job” as the nickel back against Denver but noted that the Falcons used several personnel groups and rotations in the defensive backfield in the first two games.
Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers watched the Falcons-Broncos game live and said he didn’t notice much drop off in Atlanta’s secondary because all of the injuries.
“I thought all of them contributed and played well,” he said. “They are super active and always moving around. You never get a great feel for what they are going to do. It’s kind of ‘next man up,’ It was an unfortunate injury two weeks ago to Grimes but guys have just stepped up.”
McClain is trying to make it in the league as a long shot after the Panthers selected him in the seventh round of the draft. He was a good player in college but toiled in relative obscurity at Connecticut, where he earned Big East accolades as a return man and cornerback for some good defensive units.
Robinson said he’d seen McClain make plenty of plays in practice before doing the same against the Broncos. His message for McClain: making this team means he can play because the Falcons are deep at cornerback.
“No matter who’s in, no matter who’s injured, who’s healthy these guys can step up and get the job done,” Robinson said.