After 40 games, 34 starts and more than 2,000 snaps played since the Falcons drafted him in 2010, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is a seasoned pro now.
As such, he probably could go into the regular season with no exhibition games and make out just fine. Still, there’s nothing like game action to get ready for the season, even if the intensity and stakes are not nearly as high as with the real thing.
That’s why Weatherspoon said he’s eager to play in his first exhibition game of the year Saturday at Tennessee, the last action for Falcons starters before the regular-season opener at New Orleans.
“I need it,” Weatherspoon said. “I do. Obviously I could sit out, but I want to get my legs under me a little bit. It will be my first action. I should get a chance to go out there and break a sweat a little bit and get ready for the next one. Then Sept. 8 at New Orleans is right around the corner.”
Weatherspoon suffered a dislocated finger during the Aug. 6 joint practice with the Bengals and missed the first two exhibition games. He returned to practice last weekend and will have no restrictions Saturday.
The Falcons won’t have their full complement of linebackers because Stephen Nicholas is out with a leg injury, but they will have Weatherspoon, the player most responsible for directing the players on the defensive front.
“It will be good to get him out there and have significant playing time running the defense, calling the signals and making our checks,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
Weatherspoon plays an important role in executing coordinator Mike Nolan’s defense. Part of Nolan’s philosophy is to use multiple alignments, both as a strategy and as a way to keep his players energized by the game plan. There have been hints of what’s to come during training camp.
One example: It appears the Falcons may frequently use a flexible alignment that features either defensive ends Kroy Biermann or Osi Umenyiora — or both — as linebackers. Those two stand up outside of three down linemen before the snap, and Weatherspoon lines up with one of the gaps between the linemen.
With that look, Nolan can send rushers from multiple areas on the field, and Weatherspoon, the team’s fastest linebacker, figures to feature prominently in those plans. Just as important, Weatherspoon is responsible for making sure the Falcons have the right alignment for what he anticipates the offense will do.
Weatherspoon collaborates with safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. Those three are going on their third season working together as starters, but DeCoud said they still would benefit from an exhibition game together.
“There is a little bit of chemistry going on,” DeCoud said. “We want to be clicking on all cylinders before we go to New Orleans. This is a chance to work on that.”
The Falcons may even show some a few wrinkles against the Titans, even though it’s just an exhibition game.
“We will do a little bit this week,” Weatherspoon said, smiling at the thought. “We will have a little bit of fun.”
That fits with Weatherspoon’s gregarious personality. Smith noted the energy Weatherspoon brought to practice when he returned, which includes not only spirited play but lots of talking.
Umenyiora, who signed during the offseason, said he’s noticed Weatherspoon’s importance to the defense.
“’Spoon is awesome to work with,” Umenyiora said. “He calls things out before they even happen. He’s animated. He lets you know what’s coming.
“The only guy I can think of who is like that is (former Giants linebacker) Antonio Pierce. They are very similar in the way they play. Both are very smart players.”
Umenyiora and Pierce teamed up to win a Super Bowl in New York.
“That’s pretty cool,” Weatherspoon said of Umenyiora’s comparison. “I’m friends with Antonio. I watched him play, and he always seemed to be one step ahead. Not the biggest linebacker, may not be the fastest. But, get after it, study the game and go out there and play (all) out and play hard. I watch guys like that and try to emulate them.”