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Atlanta Falcons determined to weather Sean Weatherspoon loss

The obituaries for the Atlanta Falcons' defense came soon after the team announced that linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who tore his Achilles tendon while jogging during a workout with trainers this week, will miss the 2014 season. The loss of Weatherspoon, a team leader and a critical cog, from a unit that was already in the throes of an overhaul certainly provided a wave of devastation.

But Mike Smith is the type who believes a positive must be searched for, no matter how dire the circumstances. So while Atlanta's head coach probably would prefer to forget just about everything about last year's 4-12 campaign and the run of injuries that crippled a defense that ranked 27th in the NFL, he summoned a memory from that misery that will give the Falcons something to cling to this summer -- and something for viewers of HBO's "Hard Knocks" to watch for.

"There were times last year, you'd look out, and there would be two rookie linebackers, two rookie cornerbacks and one playing on the D-line, five players in sub situations, possibly six rookies out on the field, even undrafted free agents," Smith said in a conversation this week. "They got some experience.

"We had a couple of guys last year get extensive playing time. It was tough for them last year."

Smith spent a few minutes in the wake of Weatherspoon's injury musing about whether the drastically reduced amount of offseason work time that is allowed for players -- a change that is generally loathed by coaches, of course, including Smith -- might be contributing to the kinds of freakish non-contact injuries suffered by Weatherspoon and Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee, who is also expected to be out for 2014 after tearing an ACL during an OTA session last month. Smith doesn't know.

"I do know this -- it's difficult in a nine-week program, in terms of getting everything accounted for in the classroom, the weight room, the field," Smith said. "When we had a longer period, you could focus on weights. You could focus on the classroom."

If preparation time really has been stunted, the forced growing pains the Falcons underwent last season should benefit the team now. As maddening as Weatherspoon's injury is -- because it came during a simple run, because it is a contract year for the first-round pick from 2010 -- it is, unfortunately, all too familiar. In his previous four seasons, Weatherspoon played in all 16 games just once. Last year, he made it to seven, his season shortened first by a Lisfranc injury and then by the knee injury he was recovering from this spring when his Achilles faltered.

Smith is pained about Weatherspoon on a personal level, but he is remarkably straightforward about the ramifications for the Falcons. He simply thinks they are better built to withstand Weatherspoon's absence than they were the string of defensive ailments last year. Weatherspoon's injuries in 2013, along with those to defensive end Kroy Biermann and defensive tackle Corey Peters, might have merely, then, shined a harsher spotlight and forced a sped-up timetable on a necessary defensive reshaping the Falcons have since undertaken.

It's hard to say things are looking up under those conditions, but considering how low the Falcons were last year, that's the only direction they can glance. They have spent much energy this offseason remaking the defense, somewhat in the image of the teams Smith used to work for as a defensive assistant: the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars. The common denominator, then and now: big men up front, the absence of which was made obvious in Atlanta last year by some galling statistics for a team that was 10 yards from making the Super Bowl just 17 months ago. Atlanta's run defense was ranked 31st in yards allowed and 31st in yards per attempt, with opponents gaining an average of almost 5 yards per carry.

Free agents like nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson were signed to rectify the problem. Their big bodies should help keep people off the linebackers, including whoever ultimately replaces Weatherspoon.

"We've got guys who are going to demand four hands on them -- meaning they'll be double-teamed," Smith said.

The Falcons also drafted three linebackers who could play inside: Prince Shembo, Marquis Spruill and Yawin Smallwood. Of the three, the team seems most enthused about the immediate future of Shembo. Then there's Paul Worrilow, an undrafted free agent who had a breakout season when thrust into a starting role in 2013 and wound up leading the team in tackles, Joplo Bartu, another undrafted rookie last season who finished third in tackles, and Akeem Dent, who lost his starting job last season. And though the Falcons feel they're in a good spot to absorb the Weatherspoon loss, they could still look at adding a veteran 'backer.

"I think it's going to be a very competitive offseason," Smith said.

The on-field absence of Weatherspoon -- who will still be counted on, Smith said, to help tutor some of the younger players -- highlights just how much has changed for this team lately. None of the linebackers who started the 2012 NFC Championship Game for the Falcons remain in the lineup.

Less than two years ago, with Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the East Coast, the Falcons dismantled the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 8 of the 2012 season to improve to 7-0 -- they were the only undefeated team that far into the campaign -- and further establish themselves as a championship-caliber squad. On the bus ride home from the airport that night, linebacker Stephen Nicholas said that the Falcons were starting to gain trust between each other and were building the kind of camaraderie that a team needs to rise to the next level.

A lot has happened to the organization since that night, much of it bad, including the achingly close loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the 2012 NFC title match. If the Falcons hope to quickly bounce back into the realm of playoff contenders -- and that is exactly what they believe they are capable of doing -- then the overhauled defense will have to quickly rediscover the trust and camaraderie that Nicholas thought was so critical to Atlanta's success.

Smith is sure that, after last year's trials, the young players he has are further along than they might appear to be on paper, cushioning the blow of losing Weatherspoon again. The Falcons have to hope Smith's optimism is accurate. Because Nicholas, it turns out, is an example of what can happen when a defense disappoints. He was released in February.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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