When last the Falcons made a stirring playoff climb, all the way to the top of the Super Bowl 10-meter platform, where a belly flop awaited, they were without one of their defensive cornerstones.
Cornerback Desmond Trufant’s chest was broken, a torn pectoral muscle to be precise. His heart was only slightly less torn.
“I was living through my teammates,” he recalled. “It was hard not being out there. It was definitely difficult. I was living through them, enjoying the moment, helping in any way I could. I was still part of it; I just wasn’t out there.”
The playoffs are like romance. A virtual, vicarious experience does not even rank with the real thing.
Finally, the Falcons designated shut-down corner, the one this team thought enough of to sign to a five-year, $69 million extension last spring, got his first taste of playoff football last week in Los Angeles.
So, this is what all the fuss was about.
“Now I got the opportunity to take it as far as we can. I’m excited about that,” he said.
A year ago at this time, as Trufant healed, the Falcons made their run on the strength of a touchdown-mad offense. Their identity has been significantly altered now. They are allowing nearly 53 fewer average yards per game both in total defense and passing defense. And most important, about six fewer points per game than a season ago.
As the new contract illustrated, Trufant is vital to the Falcons’ overall defensive scheme, his coverage abilities allowing them all kinds of flexibility in play-calling. He is at his best when he can physically man-up with a wide-out, and is often matched up against an opponent’s best. And he is a sincere tackler, throwing himself into a chore that some at his position have been known to shirk.
That’s especially notable when it’s tackling that results in things like torn chest muscles or a concussion (Trufant missed one game this season after colliding with a teammate on a group tackle). “Tackling is second nature. Like riding a bike, you just do it. Even if you fall on a bike you just keep riding it. Once you’re out there you’re just playing. You go back to whatever your instincts are,” he said, when asked if he might be getting a little weary of the collision part of the game.
In theory, the difference he should make in the Falcons’ defense now that he is sound is profound.
That he has been the subject of a couple of recent, very visible coverage breakdowns is the puzzle.
There was Ted Ginn Jr. running past him for 54-yard touchdown in a loss to New Orleans the day before Christmas.
And just last week, L.A.’s Robert Woods caught nine passes for 142 yards, many of those at Trufant’s expense.
All of which raises the question of how close Trufant is to his 2015 Pro Bowl form. As you would expect of a defender, especially one living on the edge as does a cornerback, he is comfortable when on the defense.
When asked the current state of his play, Trufant said, “I think I’m solid.”
“There are definitely some plays I would take back, but that’s just the life of a corner at times. Sometimes you’re 100 percent, sometimes you’re 50 percent. I just try to stay consistent, try to win more than I lose at the end of the day.
“I do (have short memory) but it still kills you to give up anything. At the end of the day it’s a long game. They are going to make some plays, you are going to make some plays. Especially at this point of the season, when it’s the best of the best. I just try to compete and leave my mark on the game.”
This week, against the Eagles backup quarterback Nick Foles and most likely his 789-yard receiver Alshon Jeffery, Trufant just might be favored in that match-up.
All indicators are that this is supposed to be when the best of Trufant is on display.
Fellow defensive back Robert Alford noted that the experience of missing out on a Super Bowl season left his friend especially motivated coming into 2017.
“I felt like it pushed him – just knowing him, knowing his mentality, knowing how much he wanted to be out there,” Alford said. “By being hurt, seeing how far we got and he wasn’t able to physically be out there, I know that it pushed him this offseason.”
His coach has noted a subtle difference in his motor, a little uptick in the RPMs as playoff time approached. “I saw it in the game the other day, maybe the last two weeks. I have really felt his intensity at the line of scrimmage, challenging (receivers). He has such quickness to do that. That part, I was really encouraged to see,” Dan Quinn said.
Such mood shifts are not always easy to read with Trufant, as he is seldom one of those DBs who give his gums a workout on game week. He’s from a family of defensive backs (brothers Marcus and Isaiah have NFL credentials) who make relative stoicism a trait.
“I grew up, you just show it, you don’t have to talk about it to other people,” Trufant said. “Just go out there and show it and show your passion.”
Nobody inside the Falcons’ bunker is going to suggest that their big coverage guy isn’t locked in here at the most important of times.
Of all his cornerbacks, Quinn said, “Their improvement on the outside has been a big part of our improvement overall.”
“He’s truly a guy when he’s on the field, he’s a threat. He’s always a player who can get the ball in his hands. He goes against some of the top matchups week in and week out. We’re a full, complete defense how. He’s just a different type of animal,” safety Ricardo Allen said.
Trufant has some distance to cover yet just to be the most impactful defensive back in his own family. Older brother Marcus had a 10-year stay in Seattle, and holds a 21-9 career interception lead over the 27-year-old Desmond. (Here little bro is capable making light of himself, more specifically, his hands: “To be honest I dropped a lot. I probably would have beat him by now if I hadn’t. But I got time.”)
Marcus also has the more extensive postseason experience – 11 career games – but his interception lead over little brother in that category is far more tenuous. He has but one playoff pick.
Consider Trufant’s response to that heartening, if you care about the Falcons.
“I didn’t really know that,” he smiled. “Since you told me, I might try to do something about that.”