Falcons now rely on their front four

BY Alex Marvez • November 27, 2010

Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith admits his team’s defensive line isn’t composed of familiar faces.

“You’d be hard-pressed to name somebody beyond (end) John Abraham,” Smith said.

The chance to command the spotlight awaits the unit’s other members.

To remain the NFC’s top team and enjoy potential home-field advantage in the postseason, Atlanta (8-2) needs a strong effort from its front four Sunday in a home matchup against Green Bay (7-3). The line must consistently pressure Aaron Rodgers or the Falcons are susceptible to being picked apart by Green Bay’s red-hot quarterback.

“Being a D-lineman, you automatically think everything starts with you,” Abraham told FOXSports.com in a Friday telephone interview.”Whether we get penetration has a lot to do directly with what happens on the back end of the defense. If we don’t have a big game and can’t get to (Rodgers) and he can move around, it’s going to be ugly.”

“Ugly” describes the Falcons' front when Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were hired in the 2008 offseason. Atlanta didn’t invest a high draft pick in a defensive lineman that year or make a significant free-agent signing at the position. Smith had to largely make do with youngsters and a group composed of what he describes as “fill-ins” no longer on the roster.

But what was once a weakness is now the strength of a unit that ranks seventh in the NFL in scoring defense (19.2-point average). Abraham has regained his status as one of the NFL’s top pass-rushers with eight sacks and 11 quarterback hurries in the nine games he has played. Jonathan Babineaux may be the league’s most unheralded defensive tackle. And a pack of emerging contributors such as Kroy Biermann, Corey Peters and two first-round picks — Peria Jerry and Jamaal Anderson — has given Atlanta the ability to effectively rotate eight athletic linemen who can wear down opposing blockers.

“Really, it’s been a whole group effort,” Smith said. “Even though our sack numbers are not eye-popping, guys have been able to put pressure on the quarterback. It’s not always about sacks. It’s about affecting the quarterback and not letting him get comfortable.”

Such a role is Abraham’s specialty. After his sack total dropped from 16.5 in 2008 to 5.5 in 2009, Abraham rededicated himself to offseason training. He made lifestyle and training changes that resulted in a slimmed-down physique.

Smith also credited the 32-year-old Abraham for assuming more of a leadership role in defensive line meetings.

“He’s not going to be very vocal, but he is mentoring those younger guys,” said Smith, who earned a Super Bowl ring as Baltimore’s defensive line coach from 1999 to 2001. “John really did a good job in changing his workout routine and study habits in terms of spending more time here and getting some of the other defensive linemen in with him on off-days and the evening.”

Just how key Abraham is to Atlanta’s defense was reinforced last Sunday at St. Louis. Although the Falcons won 34-17, Atlanta was held without a sack for the first time this season with Abraham out because of a groin injury.

Abraham admits some of his 2010 motivation stemmed from fear. Abraham was worried that his 11-year career was coming to a close after what he considered a subpar 2009 campaign.

“But when I watched tape of myself, I actually looked pretty good,” said Abraham, who has 97.5 career sacks since entering the NFL in 2000 with the New York Jets. “I want to be a good player, so I have to critique myself. I was getting there a lot of time but not getting the quarterback down. The big thing this year is I’m getting them down.”

Abraham also hasn’t allowed himself to get down emotionally despite his mother’s battle with lymphoma. The cancer has prevented Maggie Abraham from attending Falcons games but she is always in his thoughts. Abraham even had a message shaved into his haircut recently telling his mom that he loves her.

“She calls me before and after every game,” Abraham said. “We talked (Thursday) because we couldn’t see each other on Thanksgiving. My motivation is just letting her see me play at my best.”

Babineaux anchors a run defense that ranks sixth in the NFL (95.4 yards a game) and is tied for the league-low in rushing touchdowns allowed with three. Adept at penetrating into the backfield, no defensive tackle has more tackles for losses than the 19.5 that Babineaux has posted since the 2008 season.

Smith said he can see how much Babineaux and Biermann, a third-year player from Montana, have improved when watching the opponent’s offense.

“People have changed things to try and avoid having Jonathan in a one-on-one situation,” Smith said. “That’s when you really start to notice how guys are getting respect — how people try to scheme for them in protection. In Kroy’s first couple of years, you never saw him getting chipped by a tight end or (running) back.

“All that does is gives another guy a one-on-one to try and affect the QB.”

Affecting Rodgers won’t be easy. With 11-year left tackle Chad Clifton enjoying a career resurgence and Josh Sitton blossoming into one of the league’s top right guards, Rodgers has gotten sacked only six times in the past four games.

The Packers will provide an excellent test to see just how far some of Atlanta’s defensive linemen have come.

Peters, who starts next to Babineaux, is proving a steal as a 2010 third-round choice. Having missed most of his rookie season, Jerry is starting to regain the form that made him a 2009 first-round pick. And while Anderson will probably never fulfill the expectations that came with being the No. 8 overall selection in 2007, he has found a niche as a pass-rushing defensive tackle after adding weight, per Smith’s request.

“We’ve learned how to play with each other,” Abraham said. “A lot of guys understand their roles and are not trying to be something they’re not. Everyone is falling into their own category. They’re more comfortable not trying to do too much.”

The big question now is how uncomfortable the Falcons will make Rodgers feel on Sunday.