ATLANTA — Tony Gonzalez has been in Willie Smith’s shoes, and he’s glad those days are over.
No more watching game film to figure out how to slow down the NFL’s active sack leader. No more John Abraham-induced nightmares off the edge. After all, Abraham, one of the league’s premier sack specialists, is now Gonzalez’s teammate on the undefeated Falcons.
“I remember playing against him when I was younger. I couldn’t block him,” Gonzalez said following Atlanta’s 23-20 last-minute win over the Oakland Raiders.
Smith, the Raiders’ second-year offensive tackle out of East Carolina, knows the feeling.
In just the sixth start of his young career, Smith, filling in for Oakland starter Khalif Barnes, often found himself lining up across from the Falcons’ No. 55 — a numerical value representative of yardage lost in the Georgia Dome. The result: three Abraham sacks, including a third-quarter quarterback takedown that caused a fumble, led to a game-tying field goal and shifted the contest’s momentum.
For Abraham, now in his 13th NFL season, it was nothing personal with the young tackle. It’s business; the daily grind.
“I try to look at everybody the same. … I just hope I can get some more one-on-ones. And, you know, when I get an opportunity one-on-one I know I gotta win,” he said. “So I don’t really look down on anybody, I feel I can beat anybody. I mean, you gotta go in that way to play the game. If you ask a fighter if he’s gonna win, you gotta always feel like you’re gonna win.”
It’s somewhat redeeming for Abraham to be at the top of his game for the unblemished Falcons, especially in a season bearing a personal blemish off the field. He was arrested on two counts of obstruction on Sept. 25 following a strange incident near his home in Atlantic Station. Police said he refused instructions, which led to the arrest. He called the incident a case of bad timing.
But his timing on rushing the quarterback has remained constant: Quick, savvy, explosive. Abraham, a man who shies away from the media spotlight off the field, will find it hard to duck reporters with such exemplary play. He’s notched six sacks in 2012, which will likely land him in the league’s top-10 in sacks after this week’s slate of games wraps up.
Aside from logging at least three sacks for the eighth time in his career, Abraham also forced the Raiders into a few holding calls, which he considered warranted. Actually, he said, it’s about time.
“You can ask any defensive lineman or person on defense that plays interior that they get held every time,” Abraham, who now claims 118 career sacks, joked in the locker room. “You know, I was just happy to get some calls in open spaces that they can see it and the referees did a good job calling what they need to call.”
Behind the constant pressure on Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer — a veteran in his own right — Atlanta’s defense forced two turnovers, the fifth time in six games it has done so. The disruptive effect even led to the most pivotal moment of the game: An interception by cornerback Asante Samuel returned for a touchdown. At this point, it seems less likely to wonder if the unit will step up in key moments, but rather when.
One thing Falcons defenders lacked following another last-second field goal by kicker-playing-hero Matt Bryant was shock.
Is it surprising that the team is 6-0? “No.”
Is it surprising that you guys can squeak out these late-game heroics? “No.”
Is it surprising that your 34-year-old defensive end is still wreaking havoc on 20-something tackles? Heck no.
“Football is a game of angles, it’s a game of two-foot space that you’ve gotta beat your guy in. It’s hard to master that. You think about that: two-foot space, moving here, moving there,” 16-year veteran Gonzalez said. “Most of those guys are faster than me, but I will come out of my break and I will get that angle quicker than you because I know the game. And that’s what (Abraham) does. He’s out there setting ’em up, setting ’em up.
“You know, it’s chess for a defensive end going against a tackle. He’s a chess master.”