Robert McClain fine being safety net

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Near the end of Sunday's practice, Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert McClain stepped in for a few reps at free safety.

Now, McClain doesn't expect to suddenly be thrust into a role with the first group. But he is more than willing to provide depth at the position, if called upon.

"With our packages, everybody knows everybody's position,'" McClain said. "I've done safety-type work. But that's the first time I've been in there actually doing the base safety stuff and learning some of the blitzes that they do. So, I'm really learning the entire defense now. Even though I've already studied the entire defense and tried to learn different intricacies of the defense, I'm really having to fine-tune myself at the safety right now.''

The reason is obvious. The Falcons lack depth at safety right now with projected starting free safety Dwight Lowery's status in doubt following his third NFL concussion and second-year player Zeke Motta unlikely to play this season coming off neck surgery. Not to mention rookie Dez Southward suffered a left knee injury, although Southward was back to practice on Sunday in a very limited role. So the coaches decided to cross train both McClain and rookie cornerback Ricardo Allen at safety.

McClain continues to compete for the nickelback role along with Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas. Wilson seems to have gotten the longest look at the position so far, although McClain has held his own. Arenas had a rough day with a couple of penalties on Sunday. All three are expected to get opportunities to be the primary nickel during four exhibition games.

However the battle unfolds, McClain's versatility with picking up safety and his ability to be a special-teams standout should only help his standing.

"I've always known what the [safeties] had to do with their jobs, which helps me play fast on the field,'' McClain said. "I'm not the super-fastest guy, so I've got to be one of the smartest. And knowing my assignment every play helps. Knowing the safety assignments already have helped me adjust at safety.

"You have to be a student of the game no matter what position you're playing. Left corner, right corner, nickel, you have to be able to play all three. If you're playing free safety or strong safety, you have to able to play both safety spots. To be a student of the game and to really perfect your craft, knowing what the other 10 guys are doing helps you a lot.''

Maybe the development of Kemal Ishmael next to William Moore and the growth of Southward will keep the Falcons from digging too deep at safety. But if not, McClain will be ready.

"Just like Coach [Mike] Smith said: Your role can change any time,'' McClain said. "I've always been a player who accepts my role, accepts my job and does it 100 percent. I just want to win. I want the team to be happy. I want the morale, the fans, and everybody to be happy because we're winning. Whatever it does for the team, that's what we're all going to do.''