Ah, linebacker. The traditional bastion of strength on the Falcons' defense, the linebacking corps has seen some true Falcon greats—Tuggle and Brooking come to mind—and quite a few strong players over the years. It's enough to make you nostalgic for those bygone days....and then you remember that in most years, the teams those guys were on weren't very good. So, you know, back to the present.
For the first time in this series of breakdowns, we were unable to secure the reader set to write this. Rather than mope about this, I decided we needed to get this sucker rolling if we were going to finish it before the draft. That's why you're getting two editions of the breakdown on back-to-back days, and that's why today's post is being written by the sage triumvirate of brickcheney, tlozwarlock, and a guy who actually capitalizes his name. For kicks.
Join us after the jump as we see whether our current set of linebackers stacks up with names from Falcons lore.
Mike Peterson: C- ↓
On paper, it's hard to find an area at which the 33-year-old Peterson excelled in his first year as a Falcon. His pass rush was famously pointless, as BVG kept winding him up and pointing him at quarterbacks when it was clear MP would prefer to make moves in the box and devour halfbacks. He's no longer quick enough to cover anyone besides average tight ends, and even then his height becomes a disadvantage.
His forté has always been run defense, but even that is slipping. He tallied 30 fewer tackles than Lofton last year, despite being on the field for 30 more snaps. And I distinctly recall Peterson standing flat-footed as a New England running back scored a touchdown up the middle. Anecdotal evidence.
At this point, he's a first- and second-down linebacker, but somehow he played the second-most snaps of any Falcons defender last year. Perhaps Smitty has too much faith in his longtime protégé to sub in more capable pass rushers and coverage linebackers. Who knows.
Of course, there's more to it than what's on paper. When we brought Peterson over from Jacksonville we didn't expect Tecmo Lawrence Taylor. We were getting a player-coach who would help mentor a very young defense while racking up tackles into the sunset. Look at it this way... if Curty Bird becomes everything we think he can be, the investment in Peterson will have been worth it. Speaking of...
Curtis Lofton: B+ ↑
Honestly, what can we say about Lofton that he doesn't already say about himself? Answer: We can say his name is an anagram for Colon Surf Tit. That's a thing we can say about him that he doesn't say about himself. Colt Fun Riots. Sonic Turf Lot, Coil For Stunt, Cool First Nut.
How good can Lofton be? The sky's the limit. We can expect 150+ tackles plus a few sacks, picks, and fumbles from here til... well, let's just say I think we all hope Loco Fist Turn retires as a Falcon in like 2029.
Stephen Nicholas: C+
Stevie Nicks never really jumps out at you. It's easy to go weeks without noticing he's around. Which is both good and bad, of course -- he's no Keith Brooking '08 or Michael Boley '08, but he's also no Keith Brooking '02 or Michael Boley '07.
To this point, Nicholas has been a poor man's Curtis Lofton -- smart, consistent, and tenacious, but without a whole lot of highlight reel material other than being flagged for stepping within Reggie Bush's Free House Personal Safety Zone.
Solid starter? I think that sums it all up.
Coy Wire: C-
Before the signing of Mike Peterson, it seemed like our linebacking squad was good enough -- not good, but good enough. Wire had played pretty well in '08, filling in for the sagging Michael Boley, and seemed like he could hold down the OLB position for a couple seasons.
Compare his (tiny sample size alert) '08/'09 numbers with Peterson's: Wire averaged a tackle every 9.8 snaps, while Peterson came in at 10.7. In '09 Wire produced 3 QB pressures/hits in just 13 blitzes, while Peterson needed almost 10 times the attempts for about 4 times the results. Again, tiny sample size, and it's not Peterson's fault he's asked to blitz so much. Obviously, Peterson contributes more intangibles than Wire can, but I think the numbers suggest Wire is a better value at this point, financially and for the near future.
You hate to trot out a stereotype and describe Wire as being small, fundamental, slowish, intelligent (Stanford!), and determined, but what choice is there? He'll likely remain a special teamer and decent backup, but we'll be happy to keep this Wire "all a part of the game, yo." (...Anybody?)
Spencer Adkins: INC ↑
Statistics show Spencer Adkins played in 5 games last year. I don't recall this.
Robert James: ?
"Slang them keys like Bob James..." I have no idea who Robert James is.
For the moment, LB is a relative strength for the Falcons. Properly phasing out Peterson will be critical, but the rest of the fleet boasts a future All-Pro, a solid starter, and a versatile backup. Like much of the rest of the roster, it's a start.
Curtis Lofton, MLB: Lofton is a tacklin’ machine, and there’s no denying it. In his first two years, he’s racked up nearly 200 tackles, over half of them coming from the recently completed 9-7 campaign. He’s not good for much else, having only defended a couple of passes and intercepting none (in his entire career). He’s also only managed zilcho sacks last season, so he’s no the blitzing type of LB. Therefore, he can be seen as both good and bad. He’s great at tackling and is usually our last line of defense in the event our DL cannot contain a rushing or screen play. He’s a pivotal part of our line support and without him, we would never have kept the many great running backs we faced last year in check. So kudos to him at being good at one of the principle caveats of his job. I just wish he were a better pass rusher/pass breaker-upper. Grade: A-
Robert James, MLB: Who? Well we didn’t see much from Robert seeing as Curtis Lofton, aka Super Jumbo Infallible Tacklin Machine of Doom, was never out. With the spate of injuries our team had last year, and the amount of punishment Mr. Lofton takes and gives out, we should be thankful he wasn’t injured and started every game. Someone give Lofton a medal. Oh, where was I? Ah yes, Robert James. Who? Grade: INC
Mike Peterson, OLB: Poised to be a playmaker after two fantastic games against Miami and Carolina to open the season, he absolutely dropped off the face of the planet. He, in the Miami game alone mind you, forced a fumble and intercepted a pass. In the Carolina game, he forced a fumble. He showed back up against Chicago, sending Cutler to the turf on a drop back. The other thirteen games? You almost wouldn’t know he was there on the field. I don’t exactly know what happened between the Carolina and New England games, but whatever it was, it wasn’t good. Grade: C
Spencer Adkins, LB: Sure seemed like he was going to be awesome this year. Instead, he was average, though he did manage to earn a tackle in three of the five games he started. Other than that, outside of some preseason fun, we didn’t see much from him. Grade: C
Coy Wire, OLB: I like Wire. I do. Love his story, how he’s basically fighting every day to stay employed in the NFL during the 08 season and then makes the team in 09 through good performance in camp. What really makes me like him though is the heroics he performs. Against New Orleans, with the game seemingly out of hand, he forces a fumble that’s recovered at the one. The Falcons tie the game with the ensuing score. He was in the right place at the right time, but still, it takes skill to get there. He’s also pretty good at tackling, getting at least one in every game he found playing time. Grade: B+
Stephen Nicholas, OLB: Another rising star I’m expecting some good stuff out of this year, Nicholas sacked Eli Manning, Tony Romo, and (lol) Jake Delhomme. I don’t like any of those guys. Automatic B. He’s also the second most active line supporter, racking up 80 tackles this past season. B+ material now. What’s that? He forced a fumble against the Giants? A student! Grade: A
Overall grade: B+ – The Falcons, though not as pass rushy as perhaps they should be at the LB position, are pretty set here, with Lofton and Nicholas leading the pack. Peterson may or may not be a factor. And then there’s magic man Coy Wire to consider. Yeah, we’re pretty set here. Sorry Weatherspooners, but we really don’t need him. SO THERE!
Dave the Falconer says:
This is a relatively strong set of positions for the Falcons, but there's one weak starter and some issues with depth? Where, you ask? Like you don't already know.
OLB Stephen Nicholas, Starter: Stevie Nickels, as I like to call him because I'm too far away for him to tackle me to the ground and beat the crap out of me, is a quality starting linebacker. He's got excellent speed—not quite Demorrio Williams, but he also is a much more complete player—and he's clearly got the ability necessary to keep his starting spot in the years ahead. Why, then, doesn't his name show up more often in the stat sheet?
I think a lot of that comes back to the way the immortal BVG uses his linebackers. They're not really pass rushers in his system, and they're not called upon to get into the backfield all that often, so you have a speedy guy like Nicholas who is....well, basically waiting around for something to happen. This doesn't seem like the best strategy to me, but I'm a great big stupid blogger and BVG is getting paid big money to run this defense
like the Titanic ran into an iceberg. When he was being used to blitz and aggressively pursue the ball carrier, Nicholas was pretty good, amassing 80 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble.
Because the talent's clearly there and I think BVG will loosen the reins a little bit this season, I expect Nicholas to be a more effective player this season. If he puts up those kind of numbers again in 2010 with an improved Curtis Lofton and a rookie linebacker doing great things on the other side (a man can dream), then he'd still be doing his job quite well. He's a quiet one, that Stevie Nickels, but a mighty fine player.
MLB Curtis Lofton, Starter: Sure, you know Curtis Lofton is a damn good linebacker, but did you know that he eats stars, hearts and rainbows for breakfast....and he's never even heard of Lucky Charms? Did you know he tackles with such force that they're running him in the Large Hadron Collider? And Jesus Christ, did you know he listens to Miley Cyrus?
All of these things should tell you how tough and yet whimsical Lofton is, but none of them tell you about how great a football player he is. Similarly, his tackle totals tell you he's an active player who covers the field, but his lack of big plays might indicate that he's a less than perfect player. THAT'S BLASPHEMY!
Phew. Anyways, Lofton has the ability to be a perennial Pro Bowl linebacker, and he simply needs to be more aggressive and have BVG ask him to do less work in pass coverage, where he's not a liability but not a savior. Against the run, he's a punishing tackler, and with his commitment to becoming the most complete linebacker he can be, I expect great things from Lofton in 2010. Frankly, so should you.
OLB Mike Peterson, Starter: As a one year stopgap, Peterson was an average-to-below average starter. Imagine what he'd be like as a long-term starter. Or don't.
Look, I like Peterson as a person. He's got so much fire in his belly that Smokey the Bear hefts his axe every time he walks by. He's a great example for everyone else in the locker room. What he offers on the field at this point, however, is basically what you would get if you took a perfectly average linebacker in every regard and hit him so hard on the head that he completely forgot how to play the pass in any meaningful way. He's an incredibly valuable locker room presence, but I really would prefer that he didn't start in 2010.
A lot of that will depend on the draft, of course, and we once more return to the way Peterson was used. I can't help but feel that he'd be infinitely more valuable if BVG didn't insist on dropping him back into coverage, where he's a natural disaster waiting to happen. If the team can find him limited snaps, mainly against the run, then I'm sure he'll do just fine. Ask him to play three downs outside every game and you're gambling, in my opinion.
LB Spencer Adkins, Backup: Incredibly raw, incredibly athletic and incredibly engimatic. We found out next to nothing about Adkins in his extremely limited playing time, and the coaching staff will continue to bring him along slowly in 2010. Expect him to remain a mystery for one more year, but he could be an incredible asset down the line. I like the word incredible. Incredibly so, actually.
LB Coy Wire, Backup: Just an incredibly nice guy. As a football player, he's a terrific reserve, a quality veteran presence and a guy who never embarrasses himself when he's called upon. Could the Falcons get younger here? Yeah, probably. But it's a testament to my confidence in Wire's ability that I don't think the team needs to be in any hurry to do so. Look for him to play sparingly but well with a healthy stable of starters in front of him.
LB Robert James, Backup: I bet you think I'm going to make a lame joke about not knowing who James is, like my colleagues. Well, you'd be wrong, because I know exactly who he is. He's a deceased R&B musician famous for his smash hit Super Freak and his late-life cocaine problems. And he....
What? You say that's Rick James? Oh.
Then I guess this James is a former fifth-rounder who has yet to do anything meaningful on the field, but is young enough to still have potential. Well, that was embarrassing.
Bottom Line: There's a lot to like here. Curtis Lofton and Stephen Nicholas are both very good starting linebackers, Mike Peterson and Coy Wire would be quality depth on any team and Spencer Adkins and Robert James both have some promise. Of course, the fact that Mike Peterson is starting and neither Adkins or James has shown anything on the field thus far leads me to believe we could update this, and I still think Sean Weatherspoon is a likely pick to fill Peterson's spot. This is still a position of strength for the Falcons, and I'm excited to see what Nicholas and Lofton in particular will do for us in 2010.
Overall Grade: B