The Atlanta Falcons have done a significant amount of signings and roster maneuvering to maximize their salary-cap space in 2012 to re-sign players and give all facets of this team the ‘explosiveness’ that everyone in the front office has been calling for. Some of the signings signify the necessary signings to keep key players on the team. The franchise tagging of Brent Grimes is very expensive, but he is also a very important cog to the defense. But there are some signs that show that the Falcons are gearing up for the next big free-agency signing.
As had been reported on other sites, as well as being passed along here, Lofa Tatupu has been signed by the Falcons. He is a three-time Pro-Bowler who was very successful in his first three seasons as a Seahawk. After suffering a rash of injuries, he saw less and less playing time until he spent all of 2011 out of the League. Despite this, the Falcons felt comfortable enough with him to sign him to a 2-year contract. What might this mean?
I think it means that Curtis Lofton is certainly on his way out of Atlanta. The fact that Atlanta is re-signing backups and only the players most crucial to the team leads me, among others, to believe that the Falcons are gearing up for a huge splash in free-agency. I’m not going to speculate on who they might be signing in this post, but here are two other articles on the matter.
What I think this DOES mean is that the Falcons linebacker corps could take a serious step back next season. Curtis Lofton has never been a very flashy player. He does not make a lot of huge difference making plays, he doesn’t create a whole lot of interceptions, and he doesn’t play fantastically in coverage. But he has been the brains of this defense for the past four seasons, the quarterback of the defense if you will. He may not have outstanding range and speed, but he rarely misses tackles and sifts through blockers to find the ball carriers. The play calls and adjustments he makes for the defense saves the team points every single game. Based on these impressions, the Falcons are going let Lofa Tatupu and Akeem Dent compete with each other for the starting middle linebacker position in 2012. The starting lineup of linebackers would be Sean Weatherspoon at WLB (weakside), Dent/Tatupu at MLB, and Stephen Nicholas at SLB (strongside).
That set of linebackers would not impose fear into opposing offenses. It may work out fantastically. Tatupu enjoyed a lot of success early in his career in Seattle, and his intelligence has not diminished. Perhaps he can work out. Dent is a tremendous downhill tackler, and has potential to be a bit more of a play-maker than Lofton; however, at this stage his football I.Q. is probably not developed to the level that the Falcons need it to be. Nicholas is a solid linebacker (when healthy), and we all know that Sean Weatherspoon is a tremendous playmaker at weakside linebacker, and will be the face of the defense for years to come.
Even through all of this, a dark series of thought creeps into my mind. The Falcons appear to be going ‘cheap’ with linebackers. I am reminded of the 2011 edition of the Philadelphia Eagles. They signed Nnamdi Asomugha, traded for CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, in addition to the signings of DE Jason Babin and DT Cullen Jenkins. With the addition of Pro-Bowlers all over the place on defense, the Eagles were pre-season shoe-ins for the Super Bowl. Given all that talent and their use of the Wide-9 defense in obvious passing situations, the Eagles finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs.
How could this be? The Eagles went cheap in the linebacking corps. Their starting linebackers were Brian Rolle, Jamar Chaney, Akeem Jordan, and they had rookie Casey Matthews of the famous Matthews family as a backup. What ensued was complete chaos for the Eagles. The linebackers could not hold the point of attack and maintain their gap integrity, did not make wrap up tackles particularly well, could not shed blocks, and suffered from a severe lack of leadership. As evidenced by the Falcons game against the Eagles in the second game of the 2011 season, the formula to beating Philly was simple: attack the defense at the linebacker level. That meant pounding the ball between the tackles, and challenging the linebackers to make tackles. There was no way those LBs could cover Tony Gonzalez on a normal day, but when the running game is getting all the traction it wants, play-action passes to Gonzalez became super effective. Philadelphia prevented Atlanta from extensively targeting Julio Jones and Roddy White, but with them keeping the defense honest, short and intermediate passing routes into the linebacker level became possible and effective. The box score of this game says it all.
This is not a predictor, but a warning. If the Falcons go the route of the Eagles and bulk up along the defensive line and defensive secondary but go ‘cheap’ at LB, bad things can happen. I still think that Lofton is as good as gone, and that the remaining salary-cap money will be used on a DE or O-lineman. But if Lofton does leave, expect his lack of presence to be felt. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link; just ask the Philadelphia Eagles.