BY MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM
FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons’ locker room was boisterous after they defeated the Saints last week, and as usual, the party was liveliest at the defensive backs’ end of the locker room.
Cornerback Asante Samuel and safety William Moore, two of the team’s more colorful players, led the celebration. Cornerback Dunta Robinson and safety Thomas DeCoud, two more fun-loving veterans, joined in.
And then there was reserve cornerback Robert McClain, who was singing along to the music just as loudly as the others. McClain sounded as if he belonged as he brushed off any concern about critics who doubt the Falcons and talked about their plan to be physical against the Saints.
“It was a big game,” McClain said this week. “I felt the energy.”
McClain showed it, too, and that’s a change for him. He’s soft-spoken by nature while players such as Samuel and Moore aren’t shy about expressing supreme confidence in their abilities.
McClain’s self-assurance has grown through exposure to his teammates in the secondary.
“It’s been good for me,” McClain said. “I’m not trying to change my personality, but it has helped me become more comfortable to see how they play the game and how they approach the game. It’s still just football.”
McClain has been a key find for the Falcons. His role has steadily increased because of injuries to Samuel, Brent Grimes and Christopher Owens, and he played well as the nickel back against the Saints.
McClain came to the Falcons in the offseason as a so-called “street” free agent. Now he fits in seamlessly with veterans in the defensive backfield because of his solid play and his increasing confidence.
Defensive backs coach Tim Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan noticed it while watching a practice this week.
“When he first got here, he wouldn’t say a word to anybody, and now he’s beaming with confidence,” Lewis said. “Confidence can be a fragile thing, but I truly think he has a swagger because he’s made some plays and he’s been accepted by this team, by the core players.”
That’s significant for a player who never planned on an NFL career while at the University of Connecticut — McClain figured he would join the Marines — and who seemed on his way out of the league before this season.
McClain played in all 16 games, with two starts, as a rookie with Carolina in 2010. After the Panthers released him before last season, he was on Jacksonville’s inactive list for a couple of weeks in December 2011.
The Falcons signed McClain in the offseason as a future free agent, and Lewis liked what he saw while watching some video of the new arrival. Lewis also liked McClain’s knowledge when the two sat down to talk while reviewing those games and was impressed by his play during the offseason camps.
Word got to Falcons veterans that McClain had potential.
“Coach Lewis gave us a head’s up on him said, ‘We’ve got us a steal,’” Moore said.
McClain’s play during the exhibition games confirmed those early impressions.
“It became more and more apparent he’s a football player in the NFL,” Lewis said. “Whether or not we were going to be able to hang on to him was going to be the issue because of the numbers issue.”
The Falcons already had Robinson, Samuel, Grimes and Owens at cornerback. When Grimes suffered a season-ending injury during the first game, Owens stepped in at nickel back, and McClain was added to the active roster.
Then Owens and Samuel both were hurt early in in Week 2 against Denver, forcing McClain to play significant snaps. Panthers coach Ron Rivera saw the player his team had cut making plays against the Broncos.
“I really saw him stand out,” Rivera said. “I thought he did a really nice job. Then I’ve watched him on tape (in other games), and he’s a solid football player. Sometimes all you need is an opportunity, and that’s what he’s got. Kudos to Robert.”
Now it’s hard to tell the difference between McClain and the Falcons’ other defensive backs. Like them, McClain is playing well, and he knows it.
“Dude can play some ball,” Moore said. “The day he stepped in he took over. He’s been lights out. I know for sure he’s going to get better down the stretch.”
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