FLOWERY BRANCH — Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton takes it personally when the Atlanta Falcons make mental mistakes.
Those 110 defensive penalties last season, fourth-most in the NFL?
Lofton is still disgusted. As he sees it, the miscues were unacceptable.
“Yes, they were,” Lofton said Sunday night. “As the middle linebacker and the leader, you get everybody in place and you get everybody lined up. We want to be an elite defense. Getting those penalties is what’s hurting us.”
Lofton, who’s entering his third season, has been the undisputed heart of the Atlanta defense since Keith Brooking signed as a free agent with Dallas in March 2009.
A second-round draft pick from Oklahoma in ‘08, Lofton ranked sixth in the NFL last season with 105 solo tackles and 113 combined stops, but he took little satisfaction.
After all, the longer your defense stays on the field, the more chances you have to pad your statistics.
“I mean it’s all right, but that’s not what I want,” Lofton said. “I feel like I can do a lot better than that. I feel like I left a lot of plays out there last year. Right now, I’m just trying to get better.”
Foremost in the Falcons’ collective mindset is limiting unforced mistakes. Like all NFL teams, Atlanta will soon host league officials for a couple of days in training camp, but coach Mike Smith doesn’t want to wait.
Smith is putting renewed emphasis on eliminating penalties in each session on the field and in the film room. To make that happen, he needs Lofton and other leading veterans to be vigilant, particularly in coverage.
“The hand play that takes place in the secondary, sometimes it’s difficult to practice because we don’t have officials out here,” Smith said, “But you’ll hear me, you’ll hear other coaches say, ‘Don’t grab! Don’t grab! Watch your hand play!’ “
As a head coach and a former defensive coordinator, Smith wants to focus on personnel, play-calling, shifts and alignments.
Worrying about penalties only makes his job harder.
“Some of the young guys still believe they’re in college and they can contact receivers down the field, but in the NFL you have an opportunity to get one shot in the first five yards,” Smith said. “So it’s something we’re going to continue to stress and something we stress all the time.”
Lofton doesn’t hesitate to speak up.
With Brooking gone, Lofton takes charge of the huddle and stays on the field for most third-down plays. He’s also responsible for making sure the front seven is correctly positioned before the snap.
Several problems, however, made his job difficult last year. Knee injuries ended the season early for tackle Peria Jerry, a first-round pick, and starting cornerback Brian Williams.
The pass rush suffered as right end John Abraham faced more chips and max protections, and left end Jamaal Anderson failed to solve a career-long problem with finishing plays.
Not surprisingly, the Falcons ranked last with a third-down efficiency of 45.3 percent. They allowed 55 pass plays of 20 or more yards, including 11 of 40 or more, and no NFC team allowed a higher percentage of completions (58.8) that went for first downs.
“We didn’t do so well on third-and-short or third-and-long, so we’re putting a lot of emphasis on that in training camp,” outside linebacker Mike Peterson said. “All the mistakes were correctable mistakes. That’s the good thing about it. “
The free-agent signing of cornerback Dunta Robinson gave the Falcons a proven perimeter presence that should take less pressure off young cornerbacks Brent Grimes, Christopher Owens, Chevis Jackson and rookie Dominique Franks, a fifth-round pick.
Strong safety Thomas DeCoud emerged as a physical 16-game starter in his second season, taking some responsibility of stopping the run off Erik Coleman, the free safety who led the 2008 team in tackles.
Though Abraham finished with 51/2 sacks, the lowest in the six seasons he’s made 16 starts, defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and reserve end Kroy Biermann combined for 11 sacks.
Three days into camp, the defense appears relatively healthy. Though Robinson missed Sunday with a sore hamstring, Smith expects him to return early in the week when the team is in full pads.
Jerry and Williams have reported no major difficulties recently with their knees. Strong safety William Moore, a second-round pick last year, seems to be moving well after missing all of ‘09 with ankle and hamstring injuries.
None of this is lost on Lofton, who has joined Peterson in working closely to mentor first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon, an outside linebacker the Falcons believe can become an NFL star.
“We’ve got the pieces here, but it’s my job and everyone else’s job to make sure we work as a unit and accomplish our goals as one,” Lofton said. “Just by eliminating those mental mistakes, the odds of success increase dramatically.”