Senior NFL Columnist

Falcons' new defensive scheme gives Weatherspoon stage to impress

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Weatherspoon should get more big-play opportunities in Mike Nolan's system. (Getty Images)  
Weatherspoon should get more big-play opportunities in Mike Nolan's system. (Getty Images)  

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Sean Weatherspoon's voice never stops. Step onto the Atlanta Falcons practice field and you can hear it as soon as you do, a symphony of trash talk mixed with playful enthusiasm.

After a play was run during a recent practice, one with him sitting out on the sidelines, he screamed something for all to hear.

"He hit him in the mouth," he said. "He hit him in the mouth."

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His smile was wide at the mere thought, pure linebacker oozing out.

Weatherspoon is loud, confident, plays with a swagger and might be the best player you probably don't know much about.

Looking for the next great defender? He is it.

Entering his third season, Weatherspoon has amazing athletic ability for a 6-3, 240-pound linebacker.

He can run. He can tackle. He can cover. And, if asked, he can rush.

That's the problem. He doesn't rush enough. He had 115 tackles but just four sacks last season.

And while those 3-4 outside linebackers are hogging all the Pro Bowl berths because of their sack totals, those 4-3 outside backers are seemingly losing ground in the glamour department.

"Our position is getting lost a little bit," Weatherspoon said during a break from camp recently.

With more and more teams moving to the 3-4, and those rush linebackers getting most of the highlight plays, the run-and-cover linebackers pretty much go about their business with a lot less fanfare.

Name the top 4-3 outside backers in the league?

Get going now. See what I mean?

Weatherspoon is one of them, and in his third year he's about to show it. He has the "wow" factor, which means he makes those explosive plays that stand out on tape.

It also works against him sometimes. He gets caught out of position, leading to big plays the other way.

There have been several games in his first two seasons where Weatherspoon has come to the sideline and received a tongue-lashing from the coaches because of a missed assignment or his being too aggressive. In New Orleans as a rookie, he left Lance Moore open for a long score, leading to a verbal beating, even though it was a coverage he probably shouldn't have been asked to do.

"Sometimes as a young player, you are just running around," Weatherspoon said. "You have to stay within the scheme. You can't just go find the ball and go. Sometimes, it's somebody else's play. I'm working on that."

Several Falcons players I talked to during my camp visit raved about Weatherspoon.

"He's the real deal," veteran linebacker Mike Peterson said. "That kid is balling."

The Falcons are going to a new defense in 2012, one that will feature Weatherspoon's athletic ability. New coordinator Mike Nolan will move players around, sending guys from a bunch of different looks, making it tougher to figure out.

In Weatherspoon's first two seasons after being a first-round pick out of Missouri, he lined up as a weak-side backer and didn't move around much. Now he can be anywhere in the multiple looks.

It also means he will rush the quarterback more, even if it's not as frequent as the 3-4 outside backers.

"Whenever my number is called to go, I have to be successful," Weatherspoon said. "You have to put the quarterback on his butt. I didn't get to go as much in the past as I will in Mike's system. My batting average just has to be better because I don't get to go as much as the other guys."

The Falcons let middle linebacker Curtis Lofton leave in free agency, signing with the New Orleans Saints. The coaches like Lofton as a run player, but he struggled against the pass. His departure means second-year player Akeem Dent will start in the middle.

It also means Weatherspoon will be making the defensive calls in the huddle, the player with the microphone in the helmet.

"For them to let Curtis move on means they are confident in what they think I can do," Weatherspoon said. "There is pressure, but I think I can step up and be a much better player than last year. This defense is more complicated and it requires more athleticism."

Derrick Brooks is one of the best weak-side 4-3 linebackers to ever play the game. He will be in the Pro Football Hall as soon as he's eligible. Weatherspoon has the same type of ability, only he's bigger.

"I take pride in lining up on someone and they can't run a route on me," Weatherspoon said. "I take pride in my coverage. I take pride in my run fits. I don't do a lot of rushing, but I am working to get better at it. I am trying to do the same things Brooks did. He didn't rush a lot, but he was always around the ball. That's what I want to be."

But, he also knows what gets noticed come Pro Bowl time.

"Sacks, man," he said. "I know what they want. Sacks. That's why I intend to get more."


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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