FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons are happy to have Jonathan Babineaux back in the middle of their defensive line.
The Falcons struggled to stop the run in their season opener, giving up 143 yards in a 15-9 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Only three teams surrendered more yards on the ground in Week 1.
Babineaux didn’t play in that game, serving a one-game suspension stemming from a 2009 marijuana arrest. He also was fined one week’s pay, which cost him $260,000 of his $2.2 million salary.
“It’s a great feeling to be back out there with the fellows,” Babineaux said. “I’m not taking things for granted anymore. I want to have fun every moment and play my hardest.”
That’s just what the Falcons want to hear. He’ll be back in the starting lineup for Sunday’s home opener against the Arizona Cardinals (1-0), playing alongside former first-round pick Peria Jerry in what Atlanta is hoping will be a stingier unit against the run.
“Jonathan is an integral part of what we’re trying to do,” coach Mike Smith said. “Of all the defensive linemen last year, he probably got the most snaps. We’re looking forward to getting him back. He has the ability to penetrate and create negative-yardage plays.”
Two years ago, Babineaux ranked fourth in the NFL with 9.5 tackles behind the line. Last season, he led the Falcons with six sacks — quite a coup for a defensive tackle, whose primary job is clogging up the middle of the line, tying up as many blockers as possible so the guys on the outside can swoop in to get all the glory.
Off the field, things haven’t gone as smoothly.
Babineaux was arrested in 2007 for his alleged involvement in the death of his girlfriend’s dog, but prosecutors cleared said there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute. Last December, he was jailed again after police found 11/2 ounce of marijuana in his car during a traffic stop in suburban Atlanta.
The charges were reduced to three misdemeanor counts, and he pleaded guilty shortly before reporting to training camp. He received one year on probation from the court and a one-game suspension from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
“I made a mistake and obviously I paid for it,” Babineaux said. “It’s a lesson learned. I’m ready to move on from here. I’m ready to have a great year.”
He didn’t make the trip to Pittsburgh but was watching on television when Rashard Mendenhall burst through the line to win the game on a 50-yard run in overtime.
“It’s kind of weird to see your team and you’re not out there playing,” Babineaux said. “It’s like you’re a fan on the outside looking in. It leave an empty feeling in your stomach. I wish I could have been there.”
He will be on Sunday in a crucial game for the Falcons, who can’t afford to drop to 0-2 with a road game coming up against Super Bowl champion New Orleans.
“I feel like I’ve been progressing every year as a player,” said Babineaux, who’s now in his sixth season. “Once you’ve been in this league a while, you understand things more and you can play faster, play at a higher pace.”
NOTES: To restore Babineaux to the 53-man roster, the Falcons demoted C Rob Bruggeman to the practice squad. They had an opening after RB Dimitri Nance was picked up by the Green Bay Packers.