FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — When the Falcons host the New York Jets Monday, the game, in some ways, will serve as a tale of two linebacking corps.
The Jets, whose starting group is comprised of Quinton Coples, Demario Davis, David Harris and Calvin Pace, are part of the NFL’s No. 2 defense, which also ranks third in sacks.
Pace, the 11-year veteran, has 2.5 sacks while Davis and Harris each have one.
Jets head coach Rex Ryan threw verbal bouquets at each player on Thursday — as did Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
Rex Ryan called Harris “one of the most underrated middle linebackers in football” and Davis “one of the fastest linebackers in the league.”
With seven new starters, the Jets defense’s performance has improved over last year’s disappointing output.
“I think when you put the Jet decal on, there’s certain expectations and accountability that comes with it when you’re playing on defense,” Rex Ryan said, “and that’s something we’ve always prided ourselves on.”
Said Matt Ryan: “The front seven is extremely physical. They’re in a 3-4 scheme, but they play some four-down and some three-down fronts; and they’re really good against the run. They’re stout. But they’re really good pass-rushers, too.”
Meanwhile, on the Falcons’ side, it’s hard to know who the linebackers are these days, as injuries have ravaged the unit. Kroy Biermann, who played some outside linebacker in 3-4 alignments, is out for the year with a torn Achilles.
Top linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (foot) remains out for at least six more games. Starting middle linebacker Akeem Dent was seen wearing a walking boot on his right foot, and the Falcons have already ruled him out for Monday’s game.
Even undrafted rookie Paul Worrilow, who played 32 percent of the snaps in Atlanta’s Week 3 loss to Miami, and then started last week, did not practice on Thursday with a knee injury, leaving his status potentially up in the air.
Consequently, in their base 4-3 alignment, the Falcons could start the threesome of Stephen Nicholas, a long-time starter who lost his job earlier this season, undrafted rookie Joplo Bartu and veteran Omar Gaither, who did not join the team until Sept. 17 — two games into the season.
As a sign of his fading stock, Nicholas backed up the rookie Worrilow last week and remains there on the team’s unofficial depth chart.
Neither Nicholas nor Bartu played a single snap in the season opener. For the year, Bartu has played the most at 66.4 percent of the snaps. Nicholas has played 15.3 percent and Gaither just 3.7 percent.
It’s possible that Jamar Chaney, also signed on Sept. 17, would be active for the first game.
Head coach Mike Smith was asked if linebackers coach Glenn Pires has the hardest job on the staff right now.
“He’s got a tough job in terms of getting guys ready,” Smith said.
“We’ve got two linebackers that just joined us two weeks ago and they’ve got an opportunity to go out and play, so we’re going to have to get them up to speed and Glenn’s been, to say it’s a little cliché, but he’s been burning some midnight oil with these guys to get them up to speed as quick as possible. And we’ve got to figure out what they’re capable of doing, in terms of our entire scheme.”
Pires said he’s been trying to get the two new linebackers, Gaither and Chaney, up to speed with extra meeting time before breakfast and whenever else in the day he can squeeze it in.
Pires downplayed the injury situation, saying it’s “nothing unusual for me at all” during his 18 years in the NFL and that “you just keep rolling.”
Gaither (eighth NFL season) has rarely seen the same three linebackers start all 16 games. In terms of making the transition, Gaither credited Pires and his approach, calling him a “great coach.”
“I’m not just saying that to blow smoke,” Gaither said. “I’ve been around a few coaches. He’s certainly one of the better ones. He does a great job explaining things to you. He’s patient but firm at the same time and he’s going to make sure you know what you’re doing.”
Worrilow said that Pires has not changed his demeanor in meetings or on the practice field.
“He’s been the same,” Worrilow said. “He’s always hammered us with everything we need to do. He prepares us well. That hasn’t changed.”
Gaither, in fact, said Pires probably deserves a lot of the credit for putting the two undrafted rookies in a position to start.
“Those guys are playing due in part to him,” Gaither said. “You have two rookie linebackers start, I think, last week — third or fourth week of the season — I don’t think that happens too often in a lot of places so I think that’s a testament to him and his coaching ability.”
That’s one opinion of Pires’ coaching; the coach’s own opinion is more exacting, though. Asked to evaluate his group, Pires was unsparing.
“Our bottom line is to win games,” he said. “We’re not going to be happy with anything or anybody until we’re winning games. To answer that question, not good enough. We’ve got to win games for the team and that’s all we’re concerned about.”