FLOWERY BRANCH — John Abraham is back in the sacks race.
One year after his decline in sacks had him concerned he might have lost a step, Abraham is fourth in the NFL with eight sacks and is a big reason the Atlanta Falcons have the NFC’s best record.
Abraham had two sacks in the Falcons’ 26-21 win over the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night, leaving Atlanta (7-2) in first place in the NFC South with the league’s best record.
Abraham’s renewed production has helped the Falcons tie for the league lead with 18 interceptions.
He set a career high with 161/2 sacks two years ago before falling off to 51/2 last season. He made an offseason commitment to a strong comeback after his review of game film reassured him he had not lost a step.
Now the numbers support Abraham’s belief that, at 32, he’s still an elite pass rusher.
“It’s a good feeling,” Abraham said after Monday’s practice. “When I went back and looked at the tape after last season, I kept seeing that I was so close to so many more sacks. I was right there.”
The Falcons boosted their pass defense in the offseason by signing cornerback Dunta Robinson.
Abraham and Robinson are neighbors in the locker room and just as close in their on-field relationship.
“It works hand in hand,” Robinson said. “We need him to get sacks and he needs us to make plays on the back end.
“From a cornerback’s standpoint, we love him, a defensive end getting to the quarterback. It makes your job easier. From a defensive end’s standpoint, he loves a guy who is trying to take away one half of the football field. It’s definitely a lot of fun, the way we’re clicking, the way we’re jelling, not just he and I but the defense has become a real team.”
Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said it was difficult for Abraham in 2009 after setting the team record for sacks in 2008.
“When the bar you set for yourself is 161/2 sacks, when you’re averaging a sack a game, you’re going to have high expectations for the next season,” DeCoud said. “Five sacks are good for anybody but Abe. He’s a high-production, high-impact guy.”
Abraham also is a proud player who did not want to be viewed as nearing the end of his career. He said he knew a repeat of his 2009 production would lead to more criticism.
“They’re going to be like, ‘He says he’s still good but it’s not showing up,”’ he said.
So Abraham challenged himself “to do something to keep yourself on the field.”
“I think John really had a very good offseason,” said coach Mike Smith. “I know that John has mentioned his focus this year is a lot better than last year.”
Smith said a key for Abraham is an improved push from defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry in the middle of the line. One year ago, the defense had difficulty adjusting after Jerry was lost with a knee injury in the second week of the season. The Falcons tied for 26th in the league with only 28 sacks in 2009 and finished out of the playoffs at 9-7.
Abraham faced constant double teams last season, when Kroy Biermann had five sacks as a backup. Biermann has a more prominent role as a starter this season.
“Kroy has become a more efficient pass rusher,” Smith said. “He is getting attention so we’re getting some one-on-ones with John. I think John is still one of the premier pass rushers.”
The Falcons have 18 sacks this season, but no other player has more than two.
Abraham has five seasons with 10 or more sacks. His 51/2 last year were a career low in any season in which he has played 10 or more games.
“I didn’t play bad last year,” Abraham said. “When I watched the tape, I didn’t feel like I lost a step or played bad.”
Abraham is backing up his confidence with his play on the field.
“I think he’s just doing his thing,” Biermann said. “He’s getting production. He’s having a great year. I’m glad I’m playing beside him and learning from him.”