FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Falcons head coach Mike Smith on Monday ruled out middle linebacker Akeem Dent (concussion), the likely starter at that spot, for Thursday’s second preseason game against Cincinnati at the Georgia Dome.
That means that Dent, a second-year player out of the University of Georgia who played almost exclusively on special teams last season, will miss valuable time, as he continues to learn new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s system.
Smith said that Dent is “feeling better” and that he has participated in meetings. However, he said Dent remains in the first phase of the NFL’s concussion protocol after bumping helmets with a Baltimore player while covering a punt in last Thursday’s preseason opener. Players must pass through all three phases of the protocol successfully before they can be cleared to play again.
Nonetheless, Smith said the coaching staff is not worried.
“We’re not too concerned about where he is,” Smith said. “…We’ve got time for him. We want him to get feeling better.”
In the offseason, the original plan was for Dent to compete with Lofa Tatupu for the starting job but Tatupu, 29, a former All-Pro, tore a pectoral muscle before the start of camp, ending his season.
At that point, the Falcons brought back veteran Mike Peterson, 36, for his fourth season in Atlanta. Peterson tore his triceps muscle late last season, when he played mostly a reserve role after starting as an outside linebacker in his first two seasons with the team.
Yet Peterson spent six years in Jacksonville playing the middle in a 4-3 – five of those seasons under Smith, who then was the Jaguars’ defensive coordinator – and he said he loves it.
“So to me it’s like going back home,” Peterson said. “I love it. I kind of try to have the title – to consider yourself one of the top linebackers or one of the best linebackers, if you can’t play all three positions then you’re not in my top linebackers.”
Peterson is only 6-foot-1, 226 pounds – making him only five pounds heavier and an inch taller than safety William Moore. He said he has beat the stereotype of the middle linebacker, a position in which players can weigh as much as 250 pounds or more.
“I even tell younger guys, it don’t matter how big you are, how much you weigh, it’s all about how big you play,” he said. “I played it at 230 or 235 or whatever, but I play a lot bigger than I am, so I don’t have a problem with my weight.”
Peterson, 36, has started 34 games for the Falcons since the team first signed him in 2009. He is about as trusted as players come by the coaching staff.
Asked about perhaps having to take on a few more reps in Thursday’s game, Peterson said, “Hey, man, I’m not stranger to a little hard work. I was brought here to fill in whatever they ask me to do. I’m going to be ready to do it.”
Peterson started five games with the Falcons last season – three of those games were at outside linebacker – amassing 27 tackles, including 16 solo with two passes defended.
He was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Dec. 27, injuring himself in the second-to-last game of the regular season. He said that made it hard to sit out and watch the Falcons play in the playoffs against the New York Giants.
“Man, I think any time you injure yourself and the season’s still going, it’s probably mentally the toughest part of this game,” he said, “and to add that we were getting ready for the playoffs, that was even tougher. So I had to put on my coaching hat and try to coach the guys up.”
Peterson posted one tackle in Thursday’s preseason game.
Behind Peterson on the depth chart is undrafted rookie Pat Schiller, a 6-foot-2, 235-pounder out of Northern Illinois. Schiller played in all 14 games last season, totaling 42 tackles and 73 assists with two sacks, 10 tackles for loss and six passes defended.
He was a second-team selection on the All-Mid-American Conference team. Schiller had two tackles, both solo, in Thursday’s preseason game against Baltimore.
“Pat Schiller’s going to get an opportunity to play a significant number of snaps so we’re going to get an evaluation of him,” Smith said. “The big thing with that is he needs to make sure he works hard on special teams and gets the special teams reps because that’s what that sixth linebacker on your roster usually does. You’re fifth and sixth are usually going to play more special teams snaps than they are going to play snaps on defense. I liked what he did. He got some snaps last week and he’s going to get more experience this week.”
Schiller said he thinks he’s doing a good job learning Nolan’s defense. Before Dent got injured, Schiller had practiced with the third team, which gets a lot fewer snaps than the first and second teams. As a result, Schiller said he had to take a lot more “mental” reps and make sure he asked a lot of questions in meetings.
“When you get in there on game day, it’s all got to click, but I think I am picking it up well,” he said. “The more reps you get, the more comfortable you feel with it.”
He said the Falcons kept in touch with him during the draft and that it was possible they were going to take him as a late-rounder. When they didn’t, they called almost immediately at the draft’s conclusion and offered him a free-agent contract. He said his agent advised him to take it, as the Falcons did not draft any linebackers.
He grew up within an hour of Chicago and played his college ball at the same school as Falcons running back Michael Turner, who is seven years older than him. He said he watched Turner play when Turner was at NIU and that the two talk about it occasionally when they run into each other.
In all likelihood, the Falcons will not need to rely on him come the regular season, as Dent should be through the concussion protocol by then. But concussions have a disturbing way of coming back with subsequent hits to the head.
Should Dent and the Falcons suffer such misfortunate, Peterson might have to fill in. He knows the end of his career is near — but not just yet.
“Oh, yeah, you know, of course, especially when you listen to you guys,” Peterson said of the media. “I can’t help but think about it, but I’m healthy now. As long as I’m healthy and my wheels are good and everything’s still attached, I’m going to play. But I’m definitely aware that the end is definitely near.”