FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons seem to have found a perfect formula at linebacker.
Curtis Lofton takes every snap. Mike Peterson takes less snaps. Rookie Sean Weatherspoon and No. 4 linebacker Stephen Nicholas fit in as necessary.
“Everybody’s got a role, and we’re winning,” Peterson said. “You can’t argue with the results.”
As Atlanta (12-2) prepares to face New Orleans (10-4) with a chance to win the NFC South and a No. 1 playoff seed, Peterson believes much of Falcons’ defensive success is a credit to coach Mike Smith.
Peterson has played seven of his 12 NFL seasons under Smith, who uses a rotation in every game of eight linemen, four linebackers and between five and six defensive backs to keep personnel fresh.
“No question I feel pretty good considering it’s late in December,” Peterson said. “I can’t say I was excited about getting less playing time when we talked about it before the season, but you can see the benefits across the board. We’re a better team.”
The personnel makeup of Atlanta’s linebackers is still a work in progress, mostly because Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff faced a big rebuilding project when they were hired in 2008.
Wholesale changes began after Smith’s and Dimitroff’s first season together. Longtime star Keith Brooking wasn’t offered a new contract, and Peterson later arrived to fill the veteran void and to help Lofton, a second-round draft pick two years ago, mature as the starting middle linebacker.
This season, Dimitroff sought to complement Lofton by drafting Weatherspoon with the 19th overall pick, but Weatherspoon’s arrival also meant less snaps for Peterson.
Lofton, as the man in charge, sees benefits for everyone.
“We’ve got a lot of talented guys, so everyone deserves to be on the field and everyone does a good job,” Lofton said. “We’ll just keep it going because it’s been working for us.”
The Falcons have expanded Lofton’s responsibilities in coverage this season. Beginning with a Week 12 victory over Green Bay, Lofton lined up opposite receivers sometimes, but some of the change resulted in a few problems defending the run.
Atlanta won at Tampa Bay and Carolina despite giving up five total runs of 15 yards or more, the same number the Falcons allowed through their first 12 games.
Before beating the Buccaneers, Atlanta ranked a pedestrian 19th in yards allowed per carry, but that number dropped to 27th after Jonathan Stewart broke off one run for 48 yards and another for 42.
In a lopsided victory last week at Seattle, however, the Falcons recovered from a sloppy opening drive to hold the Seahawks to a 3.2 average over their last 14 carries.
But Smith is hardly satisfied all the problems are fixed. There’s no chance he will forget the 50-yard touchdown run that Rashard Mendenhall scored in a season-opening loss at Pittsburgh.
“I think our guys each and every week have a better understanding of about our run fits,” Smith said Tuesday. “It’s been an issue — explosive runs — all season, and when you have a misfit in a gap, there’s a chance the ball is going to go for some yardage.”
Smith does think the Falcons are improving their tackling, however, in the second and third levels of the defense.
Weatherspoon’s development was put on hold earlier this season as he missed five of six games with knee and ankle injuries, but Nicholas, in his fourth season, played well enough to keep part of his role after his teammate returned.
It was no surprise to Weatherspoon that his own snap count dropped from an average of 60 to 40 because of Nicholas’ performance.
“Stephen is doing a great job out there,” Weatherspoon said. “He earned it, and that’s something we all have to do. We’ve all got to push each other and keep competing that way.”
Peterson, though, is the man with experience, and he still holds sway as the locker room disc jockey.
But as much as Peterson likes to show the young players how to appreciate tunes, Weatherspoon knows the veteran loves nothing more than making a big play. Peterson couldn’t stop smiling after his fourth-quarter interception and 17-yard return at Carolina essentially ended the suspense of another Atlanta victory.
“You can see that he’s got a little bounce in his step now,” Weatherspoon said. “He feels fresh out there. We keep each other fresh, and that’s something we have to do.”