FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — During the Atlanta Falcons’ three days of practice this week, defensive end John Abraham, the team’s leader in sacks, increased his workload each day after re-injuring his ankle in the divisional round.
Nonetheless, the club announced his status as “questionable” for Sunday’s NFC title game against the 49ers.
Players who are listed as questionable are supposed to have a 50 percent chance of playing. However, an analysis published by Deadspin on Thursday, in conjunction with Pro Football Talk, indicated that when the Falcons listed a player as questionable this season, he had roughly a 75 percent chance of playing that week.
Abraham was not present during the team’s open locker room session on Friday. However, he provided the following statement through a team spokesman:
“I feel good — my workload was ramped up every day as the week progressed. Everyone is hurt at this time of year, but this is the NFC Championship Game, so we all have to go.”
Abraham played only 15 snaps (or 22 percent of defensive snaps) in last week’s 30-28 victory over Seattle in the divisional playoff round, before re-injuring the ankle he originally hurt in the fourth quarter of the regular-season finale — leaving coach Mike Smith open to criticism for keeping his starters in a game that did not affect Atlanta’s No. 1 playoff seed.
After Abraham left Sunday’s game, the Falcons had trouble pressuring Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, enabling Seattle to take a 28-27 lead in the final minute, after trailing by 27-7 entering the fourth quarter.
On Friday, Smith hinted that Abraham might have been shelved for the second half last week, if the Falcons had built up an insurmountable advantage (predating the Seahawks’ fourth-quarter flurry). In the postgame, Smith said the Falcons were “very precautionary (with Abraham). We felt like we could get through without having him out there, but it ended up being way too close for everyone in that stadium.”
On Friday, he echoed a similar sentiment.
“I think he can be very effective,” Smith said. “John re-tweaked his ankle, and with the way the score was at that point in time, we felt it was in our best interest not to put him back out there. He’s done a nice job this week. He’s participated all week, so we’re anticipating he’ll be ready to go.”
Asked if the Falcons would be careful with Abraham’s snap count against San Francisco, Smith signaled that might not be the case.
“At this time of the year, we have a snap count that we like to keep our guys at and as the season gets closer to the end, you definitely move that snap count up,” Smith said. “We’ve got a plan for John, and he’ll be back in our rotation.”
Last week against Seattle, Abraham’s presence might have been more critical to the game plan, as Wilson, a mobile quarterback, used his feet to bide time for downfield throws. Regarding San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, who only has eight career starts under his belt — including last week’s 444 total yards and four touchdowns — the Falcons have characterized the 49ers quarterback as one who looks to run after making his first passing read.
In that sense, putting pressure on the quarterback on Sunday might not be a critical component to handling the 49ers. Seattle’s Wilson ran for 60 yards, while throwing for 385. Conversely, Kaepernick threw for 263, while rushing for an NFL single-game, all-time QB record of 181 yards, in San Francisco’s 45-31 playoff win over Green Bay.
“Last week, we understood that the guy, he wanted to throw the ball,” Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “He’d run around to buy time to throw the football. This guy’s more of … he believes in his feet. He has a good arm, but he likes to run. We’re looking forward to that. We’re not sure what we’re going to get until we step out there on Sunday.”
Abraham has also been a vital component for the Falcons, in terms of generating turnovers. He forced six fumbles during the regular season, ranking No. 3 amongst NFL defenders. The Falcons are confident Abraham can be that game-changing force on Sunday, regardless of his ankle.
“Oh, man, any time he can go out there and just ‘be John,’ he’s a difference-maker in the game,” Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said.
“That’s the biggest thing about John: He’s made so many plays in this league and so many plays for us. If he can get out there and get after the quarterback and pass rush and slow this guy down from getting outside and things like that — just make him run loops instead of getting straight down field where he can take off — it’s going to make a big difference in our defense.”
tackle Jonathan Babineaux (shoulder) also was listed as questionable
while safety William Moore (hand), linebacker Stephen Nicholas (foot)
and cornerback Christopher Owens
(hamstring) were listed as probable.