The outside linebacker lined up opposite from Sean Weatherspoon is important to the Falcons defense. In situations where they decide to remove a linebacker and add another defensive back, the two linebackers on the field would be Weatherspoon and the guy opposite him. So far this season, that player has been Stephen Nicholas.
Nicholas missed a lot of time in 2011, and I think most fans including myself forgot what he was capable of. He is a fine linebacker, gives 100% effort all the time, delves out heavy hits, and is excellent in pass coverage for a linebacker. He’s been a major part of this Atlanta defense in 2012.
Unfortunately Nicholas suffered an ankle injury against the Washington Redskins. It’s not projected to be a very serious injury, and it’s very likely that hey will be ready to play on Sunday against the Raiders. But the fact of the matter is that not having his seeming omnipresence could be a big deal for Atlanta.
The Falcons have some pretty good reserves who can come in and play the other outside linebacker position. Mike Peterson is extremely veteran and knows how to play the position. Simply having that amount of experience is invaluable. Robert James is also a backup at outside linebacker. There’s depth, and some quality depth at that.
But the fact is that Nicholas is very dynamic. He brings speed, athleticism, smarts, tackling, pass rush, the ability to drop into coverage, everything you need from a middle linebacker. There’s no doubt James and Peterson are fine players, but neither of them are quite as dynamic as Nicholas. That skill set is truly important, and without it, the Atlanta defense is a tad more predictable and less dynamic.