When the Falcons took outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon with the nineteenth overall selection in the 2010 NFL Draft, it was a move deemed to help in the future.
More than likely, Falcons head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff looked at tape of the teams 2009 season back in February and deemed that their pass coverage was the weakest part of their defense. So when free agency rolled around in March, they made their first big splash with signing cornerback Dunta Robinson. Robinson would bring a swagger to the defense and secondary that was sorely lacking, and provide the team with a cover man that can go up against the Steve Smiths, Larry Fitzgeralds, Marques Colstons, and Greg Jennings that they would face in the 2010 season.
But the Falcons did not stop there, and many expected them to target one of the premier pass rushers when the draft rolled around in April to help improve a meager pass defense. When Brandon Graham, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Derrick Morgan went off the board only minutes before the Falcons were set to pick, many fans panicked. But the Falcons brass did not because Weatherspoon was still available.
As the Falcons reviewed the ’09 tape, they likely noticed that not only were the corners lacking in coverage, so were the linebackers. And Weatherspoon was considered the premier coverage linebacker in the draft class.
With his speed, range, and quick hips, Weatherspoon stands a good chance of upgrading the Falcons linebacker’s ability to cover tight ends, running backs, and receivers over the middle.
So it stands to reason that if the Falcons want to get more out of coverage from their linebackers this year, then they can’t afford to keep Weatherspoon out of the starting lineup.
In past years, NFL defenses could afford to sub off linebackers from their run-oriented base defense to their pass-oriented nickel defense. But in today’s NFL with offenses so able and willing to spread you out, your base linebackers must also be able to operate in the nickel. Otherwise, opponents will line up with three and four-wide receivers every down and just proceed to pound you up the gut. So if the Falcons want to get any value from Weatherspoon’s ability in coverage, he has to play every snap.
And if that is the case, then which incumbent player from last year is going to find himself riding the pine this year: Stephen Nicholas or Mike Peterson?
The coaching staff will have to decide what they want at the position in their base defense. Both players are entering contract years, but Nicholas is seven years younger than Peterson so has a better long-term future. Peterson is superior in coverage, and probably more consistent and physical run defender. Nicholas is the better blitzer and pass rusher.
So the coaching staff likely has to decide vs. the short-term solution (Peterson) or the long-term solution (Nicholas). Whatever they decide, the key probably still rests on Weatherspoon’s shoulders.
Spoon is going to be tested early and often. He’ll be lining up against tight ends Heath Miller, Jeremy Shockey, Vernon Davis, Ben Watson, Brent Celek, Jermaine Gresham, and Kellen Winslow in his first eight games. Reggie Bush, LeSean McCoy, and Frank Gore will also be backs he may be facing. A key component of the Falcons defensive success will be how well Spoon handles those challenges. This year, for the Falcons defense to take the next step forward, they need Spoon to do what Peterson and Nicholas could not.