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FLOWERY BRANCH — John Abraham is getting antsy. The season is nearly half over, and the Atlanta Falcons still are trying to find their starting nose tackle.
As the three-time Pro Bowl defensive end sees it, the Falcons need either rookie Corey Peters, a third-round draft pick, or Peria Jerry, a 2009 first-rounder, to win the job outright.
“They’re coming along,” Abraham said Thursday. “I just want a little more out of them. We’re trying to find one guy to really step up right now.”
When Atlanta (5-2) hosts Tampa Bay (5-2) on Sunday, Peters is likely to start his seventh straight game, but he has yet to distance himself in the competition. Jerry, who underwent major knee surgery last year and missed all but two games, is pushing him hard.
“They’re playing well, I guess, but we just need somebody to be the starter,” Abraham said. “We’re still looking for that somebody to stick out so we can put him there and say he’s the guy.”
Abraham isn’t the only Falcons veteran lineman waiting for one or the other to emerge. Jonathan Babineaux, who plays as the “three-technique” tackle between left end Kroy Biermann and the Peters-Jerry tandem, is also looking for a spark.
Because opponents often deploy centers to double-team with guards to slow him down, Babineaux hopes Peters and Jerry can demand the same kind of attention if they play a little meaner and smarter.
Not only would Babineaux have more chances to beat just one man to the opponent’s backfield, but the bottom of the pocket might collapse quicker for a defense that’s tied for 15th in the NFL with 15 sacks.
“Every game they’re getting better in understanding keys and reading things more effectively than they used to,” said Babineaux, a three-year starter in coach Mike Smith’s 4-3 scheme. “I just make sure they’re following my lead. It’s important for them to stay with me so the defense can play at a high level.”
It seems Peters decided a buzzed haircut might improve his image in the defensive linemen’s meeting room. He returned from Atlanta’s bye week with a shaved head, just like Abraham’s.
“It’s like a fresh start,” Peters said. “It’s the second half of the season, so I really need to focus.”
The Peters-Jerry tandem is a luxury of sorts for the Falcons, who use an eight-man rotation that includes ends Chauncey Davis and Lawrence Sidbury and tackles Vance Walker and Trey Lewis. Jamaal Anderson plays both inside and outside.
When Atlanta drafted Jerry 24th overall, the team expected he would hold down the nose tackle position for several seasons and provide an interior force with Babineaux, who signed a five-year contract extension in 2008.
But Jerry’s tender knee contributed to the drafting of Peters in April, and Smith believes the Falcons are better off in quality and quantity.
Peters’ 18 total tackles rank 12th on the team. Though Jerry has only three, the former Mississippi standout has one sack and another tackle for lost yardage.
Smith isn’t sure if Atlanta needs Peters to outplay Jerry or vice versa; the main thing is that the defense benefits as a whole. The Falcons rank sixth in averaging yards rushing allowed, 10th in average points allowed and is tied for 10th in takeaways, so the rotation must fit the defensive scheme well.
Smith said the rotation isn’t a new concept for the team.