FLOWERY BRANCH--John Abraham only shrugged when asked what the Carolina Panthers can expect from the Atlanta Falcons' pass rush.
"It's all about matchups," the Falcons defensive end said Monday. "So if the matchup is on the other side, I'll go to the other side. Whatever works."
Everything seems to be working just fine this season for Abraham, who leads the NFL with six sacks and has 16 in his last 18 games.
When the Falcons (2-1) visit the Panthers (2-1) on Sunday, Abraham really won't really care if defensive line coach Ray Hamilton lines him up opposite left tackle Jordan Gross or rookie right tackle Jeff Otah.
Abraham is coming off a two-sack performance in Atlanta's 38-14 victory against Kansas City. The second time he mauled Chiefs quarterback Tyler Thigpen, Abraham forced his second fumble this season and 29th of his 100-game career.
"We're going to do whatever works," Abraham said. "We had a rookie tackle this week (Brandon Albert) but we felt like I could do better against (veteran Damion) McIntosh. It's all about matchups with us. If the matchup is better on the other side, I'll go to the other side. It's not about whether you're a rookie or a vet. It's about where the best matchup is."
With 73.5 career sacks and now in the third season of a six-year, $45 million contract, Abraham has the numbers to prove his place among the league's elite defensive ends.
Those first two years with Atlanta, however, left Abraham far out of the playoffs. The Falcons went 7-9 in his first season, but Abraham suffered a debilitating groin injury in Week 1, this coming late in the fourth quarter of a victory at Carolina in which he had six tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and one pass breakup.
He never regained his strength despite appearing in six more games.
Last year was much worse for Atlanta, which endured the loss of starting quarterback Michael Vick to a federal prison sentence and coach Bobby Petrino to another job in Arkansas.
Abraham started all 16 games and finished with 10 sacks, but the Falcons' 4-12 record gave no hint of quick turnaround in 2008.
New coach Mike Smith has energized the locker room, however, keeping every player accountable to his teammates and ensuring that the tempo stays high on the field.
"After reviewing the tape one thing I thought that really stood out was that we played hard for four quarters," Smith said Monday about the win against Kansas City. "Whether you watched the first play of the game of the 58th play of the game you saw guys rolling off the football and really playing hard. We started fast on the defensive side of the football."
Abraham's respect for Hamilton, who was his position coach in 2000 with the New York Jets and a longtime starting tackle with the New England Patriots, has translated into better results for the sack specialist and the Falcons' defense.
Hamilton makes substitutions during the game based on the coordinator Brian VanGorder's call, the opponent's personnel grouping and the down-and-distance scenario.
In the fourth quarter against the Chiefs, Hamilton went so far as to call Abraham back to the sideline before a first-down snap. The line coach wanted No. 3 end Chauncey Davis, who plays behind Abraham and Jamaal Anderson, to get some extra work.
"Ray's doing a good job of resting me," Abraham said. "I want to be in there darn near every play, but Ray's like, ‘John, calm down. Relax. We'll get you in when we need you. Let Chauncey (Davis) take (a snap).' He's doing a good job of waiting until they really need me to put me in the game."
Smith considers Abraham's team-first attitude a proverbial pillar for the new staff to build around.
"John has been very efficient rushing the passer this season," the coach said. "I think he's bought into how we're going to use him."
Notes: Rookie left tackle Sam Baker stayed home Monday after starting against the Chiefs but leaving the game with flu-like symptoms. Smith said he wasn't sure if Baker's illness was related to the concussion that forced him to leave Week 2 loss at Tampa Bay. ... Receiver Laurent Robinson could miss this week with a knee injury.