FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Sunday would have been a ideal time for Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert Alford to make his return: back in his home state of Louisiana against the hated Saints and their potent receiving corps.
Instead, Alford landed on injured reserve this week after undergoing wrist surgery. That puts the onus on another Robert -- McClain -- to bring his best game forward in the most important contest of the season.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan sees weekly progress in McClain's performance.
"I think Robert's got good confidence to play the game," Nolan said. "He's got his work cut out for him because Drew Brees is an outstanding quarterback. He'll throw to whoever he thinks the match is. So Robert's got to hold his own, at times. But I believe Robert has good confidence on the outside. I think he has more confidence outside than he does inside."
Falcons coach Mike Smith made a similar assessment of McClain, who played nickelback at the start of the season.
"Again, it's a lot easier to play on the outside because you've got the boundary to help you," Smith said. "When you're inside, you've got receivers that really have two-way gos. But Robert's done a nice job. I think he's playing with more confidence, like Mike [Nolan] said."
As much as he appreciated the kind words from his coaches, McClain wanted to clarify one aspect.
"I agree and disagree because I feel as though I play with confidence regardless of where I am on the field," McClain said. "I mean, there's not really much more I can say about it. I'm going to go out there and compete. Coach Nolan knows I'm going to go out there and compete and play as hard as I possibly can play. He knows I know my playbook. He knows I'm going to go out there and give it 100 percent."
McClain has started the last four games in place of Alford and had a bumpy first few games as the starter. Then he made one of his best plays of the season last week against the Steelers when he knocked the ball away from Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant in the end zone after Bryant got a step on him and almost came up with a one-handed grab.
Remember, McClain also had a key interception in the end zone during the Falcons' 37-34 overtime win over the Saints in the season opener. He's not the fastest cornerback on the roster, but can make up for it with heady plays.
"It's always good building on positives," McClain said. "But I feel as though I never play a good game, regardless of whether I have an interception or 10 tackles. I feel like I never play well enough, especially if the team doesn't win. I'm a harder critic on myself than a lot of people. The biggest thing this weekend is getting a win on Sunday."
Desmond Trufant is the corner the Falcons rely upon to be the shutdown guy. But Alford understands his role and the challenges ahead against the Saints.
"There will be a lot of matchups between me and [Kenny] Stills, me and [Marques] Colston, me and Nick [Toon]," McClain said. "And if they bring in any other receivers after that, I'll be ready for the matchup. They move personnel around a lot, so I could even be matched against [Jimmy] Graham sometimes. You just have to compete. It's all about competition."