Smith expects injured Abraham to start vs. 49ers

It’s too early for the Atlanta Falcons to know how much
defensive end John Abraham will play in Sunday’s NFC title
game.

Abraham, the NFL’s active sacks leader, made it through just 15
snaps in last week’s divisional playoff victory over Seattle before
aggravating a left ankle injury that forced him to leave in the
second quarter.

”You don’t want to lose a good player,” Falcons defensive
coordinator Mike Nolan said. ”We won the game, so there’s
something we did right. But it does change things.”

The Falcons are making contingency plans in case Abraham is
unable to play at full strength against the San Francisco 49ers on
Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

Abraham, who has not been available to speak with reporters this
week, missed practice on Wednesday even though coach Mike Smith
listed him as having limited participation.

But it’s clear that the Falcons (14-3) will be pleased to have
Abraham on the field for any length of time against San Francisco
(12-4-1).

”He’s a sack master,” linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said.
”That’s what I like to call him – Father Abe. We look forward to
getting him back out there this week. I think the guys that had a
chance to play in his absence did a good job stepping in and doing
what they need to do in order to help the team get the win.”

Abraham, 34, was initially hurt in the regular season finale
loss to Tampa Bay, limping off the field with the help of
trainers.

Coach Mike Smith said that he expects the 13th-year veteran to
start on Sunday. Even so, the Falcons are giving reserve ends Cliff
Matthews, Jonathan Massaquoi and Lawrence Sidbury more work this
week in case Abraham has to make an early exit.

Matthews took the balance of the work against Seattle, playing
46 snaps and making two tackles opposite Kroy Biermann, Atlanta’s
other starting end.

Abraham, though, is a special talent.

”Obviously he’s an integral part of this defense,” Biermann
said. ”When you lose a player like that, it kind of puts a little
bit of strain on you, but the guys behind him know that they’ve got
to step up, play that role and get it done.”

The 49ers present several problems for Atlanta’s defense.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is coming off an impressive playoff
win over Green Bay, passing for 263 yards and two touchdowns and
rushing for 181 yards and two TDs. He set an NFL single-game record
for yards rushing by a quarterback.

Smith knows the Falcons must do their best to contain Kaepernick
in the pocket while keeping tight coverage on receivers Michael
Crabtree and Randy Moss and tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie
Walker.

Running backs Frank Gore and LaMichael James also create issues
in the passing attack, too.

”They have playmakers at both levels with their offense,”
Smith said. ”You’re going to have to put together a plan to try to
slow down certain aspects of it. It’s a very explosive offense
they’ve created.”

Though Abraham’s 122 career sacks rank 13th on the NFL career
list, he hasn’t had one since Nov. 29 when he took down New Orleans
quarterback Drew Brees to help seal a 23-13 victory.

The following week, Atlanta won its second NFC South title in
three years.

Before the Falcons traded for him in 2006, Abraham had a long
injury history in six years with the New York Jets. He’s overcome
assorted ailments and offseason surgeries with Atlanta, however,
and has missed just two games over the last six seasons.

”When you watch the film, he played through the pain a little
bit,” strong safety William Moore said. ”It was hard to even
tell. He rotates a lot, so I didn’t even know he was out at one
point.”

Moore learned of Abraham’s absence soon enough while Seattle
quarterback Russell Wilson and the Seahawks were carving up
Atlanta’s defense in the second half. After Vance Walker sacked him
early in the third quarter, Wilson completed 13 of 18 passes for
230 with two TDs.

The Falcons did a decent job covering deep routes, but they
struggled badly in trying to defend tight end Zach Miller and other
targets Wilson hit in the middle of the defense.

”Those were still miscues on our end,” free safety Thomas
DeCoud said. ”We were short on a drop here or there or someone
didn’t carry someone here or there. Those things were more about us
rather than things that they did.”

Notes: S William Moore has a cast on his right hand but
participated fully in practice. … CB Christopher Owens
(hamstring) remains out. He hasn’t played since a Dec. 22 victory
at Detroit. … DT Jonathan Babineaux (shoulder) also had limited
participation in practice.

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