Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon believes in this, his third year with the team, he is finally ready to become a star on defense.
FLOWERY BRANCH — Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is already the vocal leader of Atlanta’s defense.
Now he wants to take his game to the field.
Preparing for his third NFL season, Weatherspoon is still trying to prove he was worth a 19th overall draft pick, but he believes a perfect opportunity is here.
“I’m just kind of relishing that role of being a vocal guy, making sure the tempo is right and the attitudes are right,” Weatherspoon as the Falcons wrapped up offseason training activities this week.
“I feel like if I’m upbeat, the other guys are going to be upbeat. We’ll be having fun and making plays. It’ll be contagious.”
The free-agent departure of Curtis Lofton and the arrival of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan have given Weatherspoon a chance to become a big-time playmaker.
Weatherspoon dealt with injuries as a rookie and was still too spotty on assignments last year to unseat Lofton, Atlanta’s leading tackler since 2008, as the three-down linebacker.
But the smarts and skills Weatherspoon displayed as a star at Missouri are far better now. He’s one of the NFL’s fastest linebackers and is highly instinctual in ball pursuit.
Weatherspoon’s challenge, however, is to find a comfortable medium in his aggressiveness.
He knows it’s good to be fired up, but not so much that you play too hard, particularly as a defensive centerpiece.
“Sean is very confident in his abilities, and I think he is becoming more vocal, which is what we anticipated he would be in a very good way,” coach Mike Smith said. “He’s very positive and he’s become a leader of the defense. Each year there’s a different dynamic on the team and guys have different roles. His role is going to be different this year.”
For the Falcons to win their first playoff game in their fifth year under coach Mike Smith, Weatherspoon believes he needs to have a breakthrough season.
He likes the different makeup of the linebackers’ meeting room this year. Lofton and longtime veteran Mike Peterson have departed. Akeem Dent, Atlanta’s third-round draft pick in 2011, is trying to beat out Lofa Tatupu, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who sat out last season with Seattle.
Spencer Adkins is working as the strongside starter while Stephen Nicholas recovers from a toe injury that will keep him out of next week’s mini-camp.
Weatherspoon starts at the weakside, a job he’s held since his rookie year, but his responsibilities are greater now.
“It’s important for our team and for the dynamics of our defense for leadership to come from that position,” Smith said. “Sean is going to do a very good job with it this year.”
Weatherspoon learned a quick lesson as a rookie in talking too much when he taunted New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees and got burned on the next play, a third-quarter touchdown pass to Lance Moore.
In last year’s season-opening loss at Chicago, Weatherspoon had solo tackles on five of the Bears’ first nine plays, but he took an overly-aggressive angle on the third drive as running back Matt Forte took a short pass and burned Atlanta for a 56-yard touchdown catch.
Those plays hardly set the tone for a great season, but Weatherspoon’s role under former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was largely scaled back.
Under Nolan, Weatherspoon’s fortunes could change. Atlanta’s new schemes will mix 4-3 and 3-4 alignments, particularly on third down, and Weatherspoon will have more chances to rush the passer.
“He understands that every guy is going to have a different game from another guy that plays the same position,” Weatherspoon said. “He lets you put your own personality on his scheme. That’s a lot of fun. He has a lot of cool things where we’ve moving around a little bit, having some fun and trying to confuse the quarterback.”
Weatherspoon, who loves to encourage and playfully chide teammates, is ready to shine.
“It’s been fun so far, but it’s a challenge,” he said. “There’s some stuff that’s new. There’s some carry-over from last year, but just having a good base of knowing a little bit about football helps with learning the new system.”