FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Falcons will face Dallas on Sunday without leading tackler Sean Weatherspoon, as head coach Mike Smith ruled him out on Thursday with an ankle injury.
Weatherspoon, the weakside linebacker, had played every snap on defense for the Falcons this season until suffering the injury with 9:08 remaining in Sunday’s 30-17 win at Philadelphia.
He was removed from the field on a cart and did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday.
According to NFL.com, Weatherspoon’s 52 tackles rank first on the team with strongside linebacker Stephen Nicholas’ 45 ranking second. Weatherspoon’s three sacks also rank second on the team.
Veteran Mike Peterson, at age 36, will fill in for Weatherspoon in the 4-3 base defense; however, how much Peterson plays depends on how much the Falcons use that defense, as opposed to their nickel package which coordinator Mike Nolan has shown a preference for. Last Sunday against the Eagles, starting middle linebacker Akeem Dent said the Falcons only played six or seven snaps in their base defense.
If the Falcons go with their nickel package (two linebackers, three cornerbacks) instead, cornerback Robert McClain, who played 90 percent of the snaps against the Eagles, will become the 11th defender instead of Peterson. Significantly with Weatherspoon out, Dent also must play in nickel situations, which he does not do when both Weatherspoon and Nicholas are healthy.
Dent, in his second season in the NFL and first as a starter, has seen his playing time vary wildly this season. He has played as little as one snap against Denver in Week 2 and as much as 100 percent of the snaps in Week 6 against Oakland.
Dent played 22 of the defense’s 73 snaps against Philadelphia, but most of those came once Weatherspoon, who played 47 snaps, left the game. Dent was asked what it was like to have his playing time be so sporadic.
“I mean, sometimes it’s just different,” he said. “My thing is to always be prepared. Preparation always meets opportunity — you never know when we’re going to have an injury in the game or things like that. Last week something just happened and — snap — I’m just the next guy in, so just have to be prepared.”
The Oct. 14 game against Oakland was the first of his career in which Dent played in nickel situations and the Falcons narrowly won, 23-20, on a last-second field goal. The Falcons allowed Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer 353 yards passing — the most the Falcons have allowed this season — in the process.
In that game, Dent played with Weatherspoon in the nickel as Nicholas was injured and played only on special teams. This time, Dent is likely to play alongside Nicholas in that package. Smith said that Dent would play the same role in the nickel defense this Sunday; in the Oakland game, the Falcons had Weatherspoon play a different role than what he normally does to accommodate Dent.
Dallas owns the NFL’s third-ranked passing offense, as it averages 297.3 yards per game. Smith said he expects Dent to be ready. Part of the linebacker’s role could include defending in pass coverage against Dallas tight end Jason Witten, who caught a franchise-record 18 passes for the Cowboys last week.
“Akeem gets practice snaps all week when we’re talking about working our sub package during practice, so he gets an opportunity to work there,” Smith said. “…He’s very familiar with the role he’s been trained for. It’s not like we’re training him in one week.”
Nicholas was asked how it would be different to play without Weatherspoon.
“I just don’t hear him,” Nicholas said of his notoriously talkative teammate. “Me and Spoon talk a lot while we’re out there. What’ll be different, I’ll be talking to Akeem. That’ll be different. Spoon is definitely an explosive player, man. I can count on him to be there if I’m not there.”
Weatherspoon was a first-round pick in 2010 and is a difficult player to replace, even if the Falcons were talking up Dent and their depth on Thursday. Starting safety Thomas DeCoud likened the situation to the defensive backfield where 2010 Pro-Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes was lost for the season in Week 1 but others have stepped up.
“We’ll miss his energy and his intensity,” DeCoud said of Weatherspoon. “… We have that same kind of depth in the linebacking corps.”