WHILE INSTALLING his Cover 2 scheme last year, coach Mike Smith showed tape of the defenses he had coordinated in Jacksonville the five seasons previous. What stood out most to middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was the man playing his position, Mike Peterson. "He was always going downhill, smashing somebody and making plays," says the 6-foot, 248-pound Oklahoma product, who was Atlanta's fourth-leading tackler as a rookie in 2008. "I was just like, Man, this guy is good."
Since the Falcons signed Peterson to a two-year, $6.5 million deal in March, Lofton has been able to learn directly from the 11-year pro. Peterson, who thrived under Smith's direction in Jacksonville, will now line up on the outside—where he alighted his first four years in the league, with Indianapolis—to accommodate Lofton and buttress Atlanta's porous run defense.
In meetings Peterson sits next to Lofton and patiently fields his numerous questions. "He wants to know what I'm looking at before the play and as it's going on," says Peterson, who also helps by translating the scheme's jargon.
Peterson's addition is just part of the makeover for a Falcons defense that jettisoned five starters after finishing as the league's eighth-worst unit against the run and ninth-worst overall. Atlanta drafted seven defensive players in April, most notably Peria Jerry, a 6'2", 294-pound tackle from Ole Miss at No. 24, who is expected to start immediately. (Rookies William Moore, a safety, and Lawrence Sidbury, a defensive end, will rotate in as well.) The holdovers promoted to starting spots include free safety Thomas DeCoud, outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas, and cornerback Brent Grimes.
Overall the changes will make the Atlanta D more athletic but considerably less experienced. To compensate, the unit spent extra time in camp going over assignments in an effort to curb freelancing. "Last year there'd be times when a guy didn't trust the scheme and would try to make a play on his own instead of holding his gap where the defense is designed for someone else to make a play," says strong safety Erik Coleman. "I've got to trust that if I stay outside on this run support, the 'backer's going to be inside to make the tackle."
If any linebacker can be trusted to be where he's supposed to, it's Peterson. He not only has unwavering faith in the scheme—he's racked up nearly 1,000 career tackles in the system—but is also a big believer in Smith, to whom he is fiercely loyal. After Smith left Jacksonville to take the job in Atlanta, Peterson fell out of favor with the Jaguars coaching staff. His muscle-flexing sack celebration in a Week 9 loss to the Bengals that dropped the Jags to 3--5 led to a clash with coach Jack Del Rio; after that game Del Rio scolded Peterson and other players for their efforts, and made it clear he didn't want to hear any backtalk from them. When the linebacker fired back at Del Rio anyway, the coach banished him from the team facility for two days, fined him $10,000 for insubordination and benched him the following week against Detroit.
Now reunited with Smith and in an environment where he feels his input is not just welcome but sought after, Peterson is eager to put that episode behind him. His good citizenship shows in the mentoring role he is playing with his young teammates. In Lofton he sees a talent who—with a little nudging—could help carry Atlanta deeper into the playoffs than their wild-card appearance last year.
"He's a young guy who's willing to listen, and that lets you know he wants to be a good ballplayer," Peterson says. "I tell him all the time that to be one of the top linebackers, you've got to be able to do everything: play the run, play the pass. And he can do it. It's just a matter of pulling it out of him and making sure he does it on a consistent basis."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
COACH: MIKE SMITH
11--5 in NFL, second season with Falcons