Lofton has to Rise Up
There are two things that cannot be questioned about Curtis Lofton: first his toughness and secondly, his leadership. These are two areas where Lofton excels in. He’s a punishing, hard-hitting middle linebacker that likes to mix it up on defense. He’s taken on more of the leadership mantle during the lockout, acting as the “quarterback” of the defense during player-organized workouts according to several sources.
But there are areas where Lofton can be questioned, and often that is his play on the field. He did not play up to expectations in 2010 after a very promising 2009 campaign. The previous year, he made consistent plays against the run, while struggling quite a bit against the pass. And while he made improvements as a pass defender, his run play was not up to par. And that play against the run is mainly what Lofton is known for.
The Falcons emphasized improving their offense in this past year’s draft mainly because their brass feels it already has many of the pieces on defense to make significant strides going forward. Obviously, one of those pieces is Lofton. But he’ll have to step up his play like many of the others if he wants to prove the Falcons front office to be right.
First of all, I want to say that one of the reasons why I think that Lofton was a less effective run defender was because of the changes the Falcons had up front at defensive tackle. Corey Peters really struggled against the run throughout the first three-quarters of the season, and Jonathan Babineaux did not do as much penetrating as he did the year before. Babineaux’s production dropped from 17.5 tackles for loss and 26 positive pass rushes (a combination of sacks, pressures, and hits) in 2009 to 9.5 and 15.5, respectively, in 2010. That’s not to say that Babineaux was bad, just that he wasn’t nearly as good. His 2009 season was an outstanding season, arguably as good if not better than any ever played by a Falcon defensive tackle. And while Peters did struggle throughout most of the year, his play did step up in the latter half of the year. He recorded 4.5 tackles for loss in the final 7 games.
But Lofton’s play did not pick up in the latter half of the season. He was “key blocked” (meaning he was the victim on the principle block that sprung an opposing rusher on gains of 5 or more yards) a ridiculous 16.5 times during the latter half of the season. Through the first half of the season, that number was 3.83. And the issue is that is supposed to be the strength of Lofton’s game.
It should be no secret that Lofton will never be great in coverage. In 2009, he blew 11 coverages, including 4 touchdowns. This past year that number dropped to 9 and 3, respectively. Not a ton of difference. But it was when you factor in that Lofton broke up 3 passes and had an interception, where he had none in 2009. So while he’s probably just as susceptible to being beat in coverage, he’s at least shown the ability that he can occasionally make a play to make up for it somewhat.
Toughness and leadership are welcome traits to have, but they don’t mean jack if you’re not making plays out on the field. And Lofton did not do that last year. While many will tout him as one of the best middle linebackers in the league, his play in 2010 was much more evident that he’s one of the worst middle linebackers in the league. It’s a what have you done for me lately league, and as of late, Curtis Lofton hasn’t done a lot. Among the Falcon fan base, he’s essentially living off a reputation that he has yet to truly earn.
Now that’s not closing the door on Lofton. I think he can continue to make strides in coverage and be in a position to make even more plays there. I also think he has the chance to bounce back as a run defender and have a season much more like the one he had in 2009 where he had 17 tackles for loss, and along with Babineaux was one of the key reasons why the Falcons had the second-rated run defense according to Football Outsiders. The Falcons dropped to 13th in 2010.
Lofton is entering a contract year and at this point I would say it’s doubtful that he won’t be back in 2012. But if he doesn’t playing up to his potential as one of the top middle linebackers in the year, and regular start to make plays both against the run and the pass, then he probably should not be back.
This Falcon offense with the addition of Julio Jones looks to be one of the more explosive ones in the league going forward. If the defense is going to pull its weight and try its best to catch up, then Curtis Lofton has to be one of the key reasons for its improvement going forward. He certainly has the ability, now we just need to see the production.