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In his second season in the league, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon made the jump from rookie to member of the 100-tackle club when he finished off 115 ball-carriers last year. He finished third in the NFC South in tackles and showed versatility by registering four sacks, good enough for a five-way tie at seventh place in the division.
Heading into the 2012 season, Weatherspoon enters uncharted waters. No longer will he be the underclassman among the linebacker corps. Curtis Lofton left Atlanta for the New Orleans Saints, which means Weatherspoon will become the signal-caller on defense, and he must find a way to up his play to make up for losing Lofton's division-leading 147 tackles.
Enter new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
Nolan will mix schemes a little in Atlanta, as the team plays from a base 4-3, but he'll mix in some 3-4 and lots of looks from a nickel package. The scheme changes, mixed with the methods Nolan uses to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, could be a great benefit to Weatherspoon.
"He understands that every guy is going to have a different game from another guy that plays the same position," Weatherspoon told reporters after an offseason practice, according to George Henry of The Associated Press. "He lets you put your own personality on his scheme. That's a lot of fun. He has a lot of cool things where we've moving around a little bit, having some fun and trying to confuse the quarterback."
According to Jay Adams, the digital content manager for the Atlanta Falcons, Nolan has already taken note of how much Weatherspoon could benefit from playing in his scheme and how much the third-year linebacker's style of play works well with his game plan.
Factor in a better secondary in Atlanta with the addition of Asante Samuel, and that means opposing quarterbacks might have to hold the ball just a split second longer, giving Weatherspoon and the Atlanta pass rush extra time.
Weatherspoon stepped up to become a top-notch linebacker in 2011. If things go right—everything from the coaching change to Weatherspoon’s own development to Atlanta’s improved defense giving him more opportunities to roam the field and hit—Weatherspoon could enter elite status in 2012.
The 2012 Bleacher Report Top 25 Players in the NFC South List
19. Sean Weatherspoon, LB, Atlanta Falcons
Top 25 List (by team)
Atlanta Falcons: 2
New Orleans Saints: 1
Top 25 List (by position)