Injuries thin Falcons defense for stretch run

There’s nothing positive about the Falcons losing Desmond Trufant to season-ending surgery or the news that defensive end Adrian Clayborn reportedly also is set for a procedure. The defense has been vulnerable to big pass plays and now the Falcons will make their final push for the playoffs without their best cornerback and a key pass rusher.

But at least the Falcons can say they’ve been here before. Important players at every level of the defense have missed games because of injuries this season and yet the Falcons (7-4) are in control of the NFC South and lately have shown steady signs of improvement on that side of the ball.

Trufant sat out for the second straight game on Sunday and Clayborn departed early with a knee injury, yet the Falcons limited the Cardinals to six points in the second half of a 38-19 victory.

“We don’t generally say ‘next man up’ but as you are part of this team we recognize the value that you have,” Quinn said Monday. “That’s why we push each guy to take them as far as we can, knowing that when your (opportunity) is called, you are ready to answer. That is one of the best way to demonstrate earning your respect from your teammates: ‘Here is my opportunity, I’m going to go nail it.’”

Quinn wasn’t ready to officially rule out Trufant for the season but Trufant already has surgery scheduled for Thursday to repair a torn pectoral muscle. ESPN reported later Monday that Clayborn likely will have surgery after tore the MCL and meniscus in a knee.

Opponents targeted Trufant fewer times than any cornerback in the NFL last season, when he earned his first Pro Bowl selection. Clayborn leads all defensive linemen in snaps played and his 4 1/2 sacks are second on the team behind Vic Beasley (9.5).

The Falcons have used a collective effort to generate pass rush. But Trufant’s replacement, Jalen Collins, will be taksed with reguarly covering opposing wide receivers with little or no help.

“We prepare, so I’m sure I can get it done,” Collins said. “I’m ready.”

When Trufant left the Nov. 3 Buccaneers game, Collins replaced him in the starting lineup and has generally played well since. Quinn said he was most pleased with Collins’ competitiveness against the Cardinals.

“He had really difficult matchups on a number of good players and he just kept responding,” Quinn said. “We are anxious to see where he goes but, for me, his arrow is certainly trending up.”

The Falcons selected Collins in the second round of the 2015 draft out of LSU and his size/speed combination seemed to make him a good fit for Quinn’s defense. But Collins struggled in coverage as a rookie and then missed the first four games of this season because of a violation of the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.

The Falcons didn’t activate Collins for the first two games after he was eligible to return. He played solely on special teams in the Week 7 loss to the Chargers and then was back on the inactive list for Week 8.

Now the Falcons are counting on Collins to fill in for their best cornerback.

“Trufant is a guy that you cannot really replace, but it is next man up and we will get at it,” Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones said. “We have Jalen in now. We have to keep giving him those looks and keep giving him those reps at practice. Then, when he gets to the game, he will be a lot more comfortable.”

The Falcons’ defense has pushed through several injuries this season.

The linebacker corps made do after injuries felled Sean Weatherspoon and De’Vondre Campbell. The Falcons managed to improve their pass rush even as injury slowed defensive end Dwight Freeney and Derrick Shelby had season-ending surgery. The secondary did without promising rookie Keanu Neal when he missed the first two games following knee surgery.

“When your number is called we expect you to step up,” Quinn said. “Your teammates do; your coaches do. We don’t make a big deal out of it: ‘Man, you really have to play well now, so and so is out.’ They are pretty aware of that going into the game, that’s why you re there. But at the same time, as a real competitor, ‘All right, man, here’s my shot and I’m going to go take it.’ We have a lot of good competitors here.”

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