Falcons vs. Saints
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
TV, radio: Fox (WAGA-5); 550-AM, 92.9 FM
Web site: www.atlantafalcons.com
FLOWERY BRANCH — Mike Smith’s plan for getting the most out of John Abraham at first caught the veteran defensive end by surprise.
The new Falcons coach told Abraham he’s so important to the Atlanta defense that he should be on the field for fewer snaps.
Fewer snaps? More time watching from the sideline? It was an unexpected suggestion for a proud veteran.
The 30-year-old Abraham still considers himself able to play every down. He played in every game in 2007 and had 10 sacks and four forced fumbles. Why the need for a reduced role?
Abraham went with the plan, and halfway through the season, it’s clear he’s never been more important to the Falcons.
Abraham’s best example of making more out of less came last week, when he played only 21 snaps and delivered three sacks and a forced fumble in a 24-0 win at the Oakland Raiders. After only eight games, Abraham already has big numbers. He has been the big-play leader for a defense that has helped the Falcons to a surprising 5-3 start as they prepare to play New Orleans on Sunday.
It’s no wonder Abraham wore a big smile Wednesday as he talked about the first half of the season.
"I’m happy all around, for me and for the team," he said. "We’re just happy to be in this situation. The last couple of years have been up and down. To have stability and to have a team that is focused and trying to get to more than just 16 games, that’s big."
Abraham says Smith’s plan for his playing time is "just being smart."
"They’re doing a good job of resting," he said. "I don’t get in as many plays as I used to, but the production is up. As long as it’s working, we’re going to keep doing it."
Smith, the former defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, said as he studied Abraham’s history he saw the former New York Jets star has always been productive when healthy. But Smith also saw injuries have been a major problem.
Abraham played in only eight games for Atlanta in 2006, when he battled a groin injury, and another groin injury limited him to seven games for the Jets in 2003.
"We knew that John was a premier pass rusher, and when John has been healthy throughout his career he’s put up some big, big numbers," Smith said.
Borrowing from the strategy he used to keep some of his top defensive linemen healthy in Jacksonville, Smith and his staff devised the plan for Abraham.
"We thought if we could get John around 40 snaps, which is two-thirds of the snaps in a normal ballgame, he’s going to have an opportunity to be fresh at the end of the game," Smith said. "So we’ve cut his number of snaps down. He’s not playing every down. We think that will have him fresh in the fourth quarter when we have to make plays."
For that plan to work, the Falcons need strong performances from their other defensive ends, including Jamaal Anderson, a first-round draft pick in 2007. Anderson was held without a sack as a rookie and in his first five games this season, but he’s dropped quarterbacks behind the line in two of the last three games.
"I told Jamaal before the season started, I’m going to be only as good as he is," Abraham said. "He’s really playing well. He’s not putting up big numbers, but he’s got his first two sacks right now. He’s getting better every week and it’s showing up on tape. If you watch him on tape, you see he’s doing a good job."
The Falcons’ defense did not give up a first down in the first half of the dominant win over the Raiders. It was Atlanta’s first shutout since 2002.
Abraham also had three sacks in the Falcons’ season opener against Detroit.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees has been sacked only seven times. New Orleans coach Sean Payton said he has to find a way to contain Abraham if his team can protect Brees on Sunday.
"Right now as you watch him play he’s having a Pro Bowl season," Payton said of Abraham. "He’s someone you have to account for on every play and be mindful of how you’re going to block him.
"When you look at his sack production right now, it’s real impressive."
Abraham trails only Miami’s Joey Porter (11«) among the league’s sack leaders.
"My only goal was to stay healthy," he said. "Honestly, I don’t care about all the numbers right now. I just want to stay healthy. If I’m sitting down watching, I’m not going to help at all."
Abraham has been more active than ever when in the game, including before the ball is snapped. Smith has Abraham bouncing from left end to right end and even occasionally dropping back in pass coverage as the Falcons look for one-on-one matchups for their star.
"We wanted to make sure that John wasn’t always aligned in the same place," Smith said. "We wanted to move him from the left side to the right side and not give him any tendencies in terms of where he’s aligning, trying to keep it as close to 50- 50 as possible and also moving him around and letting him kind of roam behind the line of scrimmage occasionally.
"This league is a big, big matchup league. You try to put your best on their lesser player."
The first half has proved Abraham is still the best player on a Falcons defense that lost some top veterans after a 4-12 season. DeAngelo Hall was traded to the Raiders — and waived by Oakland on Wednesday. Defensive tackle Rod Coleman and defensive back Jimmy Williams were not re-signed.
The Falcons kept some other veterans, including linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley, safety Lawyer Milloy and Abraham.
"I think they kept the core guys who want to win and would put the team to the best advantage," Abraham said. "Not knocking the guys who aren’t here. I love those guys to death, but it was just a situation where I don’t think we were headed in the same way. So we did the right thing to keep the best core guys that we could."
Abraham said those "best core guys" have joined Smith, rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and others to help the Falcons heal wounds left from the turmoil of 2007. Last year, Michael Vick was sent to prison and former coach Bobby Petrino left notes in lockers to tell players he was quitting after 13 games.
"I’ve been around a team that wins and I’ve been around a team that’s a family, and that’s what we have here," Abraham said.
"Everybody has that one goal. It’s showing in our play, I think, on both sides of the ball.
"Going through what we did last year makes work fun now."