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Peterson happy to be reunited with former coaches
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FLOWERY BRANCH — Mike Peterson finally made peace with himself after last year's meltdown with Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio.

It took Peterson a few restless nights to put the embarrassments and disappointments behind him, but a reunion with Falcons coach Mike Smith has given the 11th-year linebacker a new outlook on football.

"You're going to go through some phases in your life when you have to learn from it and move on," Peterson said Tuesday. "For some reason, and I might not understand it now, but this season, after we win the Super Bowl, I'll look back and say it was a blessing in disguise."

Peterson credits Smith with much of Jacksonville's success on defense from 2004-07, when the Jaguars went 40-24 and twice made the playoffs. Smith, who left as coordinator to become Atlanta's head coach in January 2008, also was his first and only NFL coach to always stay in touch and genuinely care about his personal life.

After Peterson broke his hand at San Diego and missed the final six weeks of 2006 and both playoff games, Smith took time to check in regularly and make sure his injured middle linebacker was emotionally stable.

"He's going to be the same guy on game day that he's going to be Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday," Peterson said. "That's one of the reasons guys in Jacksonville bought into the system. We loved Smitty down there. You wasn't just playing for the Jaguars and the name on your back. You was playing for the defensive coordinator.

"That's the main reason I'm here."

In the second week of free agency five months ago, the Falcons signed Peterson to a two-year contract worth $6.5 million. By NFL standards, the financial terms were modest, but Peterson knew a lot of teams likely shied away from his injury history, which included a torn pectoral muscle that ended his 2006 season after five games.

Because Smith and Atlanta defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder had worked so closely with Peterson in Jacksonville, the Falcons valued his experience (starting 127 of 135 games with 1,365 tackles, 15 interceptions, six fumbles forced and seven recovered) over zero Pro Bowl invitations in four years with Indianapolis and six in Jacksonville.

Atlanta also was unfazed by Peterson's fallout with Del Rio, who forced him to leave team headquarters twice last November and in a Week 10 victory at Detroit made him a healthy scratch for the first time in his career.

Though he and Del Rio never confirmed the cause of their disagreement, Peterson's muscle-flexing celebration in a loss at Cincinnati only hurt his cause. A $10,000 fine for insubordination didn't help, either.

Even so, the Falcons, who chose not to re-sign Keith Brooking, needed an emotional leader at linebacker who could help keep second-year starter Curtis Lofton and first-year starter Stephen Nicholas focused.

"He was the leader of the defense in Jacksonville, so he knows through experience how to share information with younger players," VanGorder said. "He knows how important that role is, and it's one that he embraces. He understands the entire scope of the game."

Peterson, a first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection as a senior year at Florida, was feeling spry on the fourth day of Atlanta's training camp.

He's excited that Smith and VanGorder have plugged him in at weakside linebacker. Plans call for him to start on the outside after six years in the middle, but Peterson is the leading candidate to stay on the field for basic nickel packages as the Falcons' only linebacker.

"I think Mike can mentor those young players because he has played in our system, he's played for Brian VanGorder and he's familiar with me and what we try to get done," Smith said.

Peterson tries to tell his younger teammates to value practice time as much as they snaps earned in games.

"That's why I'm out here every day doing what I have to do so that on Sunday it will all be easy to me," he said. "I win my games out here. I don't win my games on Sunday. Going against (Pro Bowl running back) Michael Turner out here and (Pro Bowl tight end) Tony Gonzalez out here, that's what makes Sunday easy."
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