The Atlanta Falcons might be on the verge of locking up homefield advantage but not without a price. All teams have nagging injuries this late in the season, but the Falcons' secondary has been hit hard lately. Falcons head coach Mike Smith has driven home the "next man up" message for 12 games. It worked early, and the message is still working.
Cornerback Robert McClain is a shining example.
Falcons Injured Secondary
The Falcons entered 2012 with high hopes of improving their porous secondary. They franchised Brent Grimes who was the lone defensive back to stand out in former DC Brian VanGorder's system. This was followed by essentially stealing Asante Samuel from the Philadelphia Eagles for a seventh-round pick in the 2013 draft. These two moves, combined with hiring DC Mike Nolan, put the Falcons in position to fix one of the league's worst pass defenses.
Then Brent Grimes was lost for the year due to injury.
Surprisingly, Dunta Robinson reversed his underwhelming performance and helped fill the hole left by Grime's absence. But the season is long and the bruises many. Samuel and Robinson would not be able to carry the load alone.
More recently, Samuel has injured the same shoulder twice in two games. Proving to be far tougher than previously believed, Samuel has been willing to play through the pain.
Journeyman To Godsend
Robert McClain was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in 2010. He spent a year in Carolina before heading to the Jacksonville Jaguars. He never saw the field with the 2011 Jacksonville Jaguars, but the Falcons signed him for depth nonetheless.
They must have seen something the Jaguars missed, because McClain made the team coming out of preseason. Now, the Falcons are grateful he did.
McClain has started making a name for himself among those who follow the Falcons. Appearing in 11 games with two starts, McClain has amassed 42 tackles, an interception off Peyton Manning and a fumble recovery. Not bad for a backup player that was cut from two teams in two years.
A questionable Asante Samuel makes him all the more valuable.
But even before Samuel's injury became an issue, McClain's worth was not lost on DC Mike Nolan. During an interview on Atlanta's 790 The Zone prior to Atlanta defeating the New Orleans Saints, Nolan was asked about McClain's production. Nolan was quick to toss bouquets his way and said that McClain "has been a godsend."
Heading into the playoffs, the teams that have success are either "who's hot" or "who's healthy." Whether the Falcons will be hot remains to be seen. The final four games will not be a cakewalk.
Few teams are truly healthy after 16 games. The Falcons have had their share of injuries in 2012 with little drop in production. Smith's "next man up" mentality will not allow it.
And with players like Robert McClain to fall back on, the Falcons will stick with that mantra.