Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith is having a tough time keeping his starting middle linebacker healthy.
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After losing Curtis Lofton to free agency in the spring, the Falcons signed Lofa Tatupu to replace him, but a torn pectoral muscle ended his season before the start of training camp.
Now Atlanta must temporarily replace second-year linebacker Akeem Dent, who sustained a concussion in the 31-17 loss to Baltimore and will miss next week’s exhibition against Cincinnati.
With 14th-year veteran Mike Peterson taking Dent’s spot Saturday in practice, Smith didn’t seem concerned about the situation at middle linebacker, but the specter of injuries is one that haunts every NFL team.
Smith has made it a stated goal in camp and preseason games that the Falcons will do everything in their control to avoid injuries.
”You have to get your guys prepared, and it’s a fine line,” Smith said. ”You’re always walking that fine line, in terms of the right amount of work, the right amount of contact, and overworking your players. I think we do a really nice job.”
Atlanta took a hit at fullback, too, when rookie fullback Bradie Ewing was lost for the season after injuring his right knee against Baltimore.
Ewing, a fifth-round pick from Wisconsin, was listed as the top reserve behind starter Mike Cox.
”That’s a tough break in his first NFL preseason game,” Cox said. ”I told him he was in my prayers and everything. He wants to get through and be back better than ever.”
The Falcons aren’t sure when starting defensive tackle Corey Peters (left foot) and reserve defensive tackle Vance Walker (undisclosed injury) will return.
Kerry Meier, the team’s No. 4 receiver, missed practice with an unspecified leg injury. No. 3 receiver Harry Douglas returned to practice after being held out of the Baltimore game with a rib injury.
Losing a starting middle linebacker might not hurt the team as much as in years past because new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan deploys a lot of schemes with five defensive backs and two linebackers.
The top two linebacker jobs belong to Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas, but the Falcons will play some 4-3 sets that will require Dent, Peterson or a cross-trained veteran like Spencer Adkins to fill the role.
Adkins, who is listed behind Nicholas on the depth chart, started his first career game in three seasons last year when Nicholas and Peterson were injured.
”You always want to be a starter, man, and the thing that makes us special in our linebacker group is that I believe we have six starters,” Adkins said. ”We make our starters better and our starters continue to keep us getting better.”
With Peters and Walker sidelined, reserve defensive end Kroy Biermann believes the Falcons can overcome injury setbacks in the same way they have throughout his five-year Atlanta career.
Biermann has started 17 of his 64 games. Many of his starts came when a first-team end was injured, like when John Abraham was hurting and missed the Green Bay loss last season, or two years ago when Jamaal Anderson was ineffective and lost his job.
”Whenever I’m on the field, in a game, I’m just out there to play hard and knock some heads off,” Biermann said. ”The thing is when you look at every position on our defense, we’ve got a lot of depth. It goes without saying that we don’t want any of our 1s or 2s getting hurt, but we’re doing OK now. Hopefully it will stay that way.”