FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Curtis Lofton isn’t worried that the Atlanta Falcons have depth issues at linebacker entering the playoffs.
When the Falcons visit the New York Giants on Sunday, Atlanta will be just fine, according to the team’s defensive captain and starting middle linebacker.
Lofton believes Atlanta (10-6) can contain the Giants (9-7) without having to compromise its defensive schemes, particularly after starting weakside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon returned to practice Thursday after missing the previous day with a head injury.
The Falcons’ deficiency is at strongside linebacker, where the Falcons had three starters — Stephen Nicholas, Mike Peterson and Spencer Adkins — in the last three games. Adkins will make his second career start for the second straight week, but Lofton is hardly concerned that his teammate has played in just 15 games since he was drafted in the sixth round of 2009.
Rookie Akeem Dent, a third-round pick from Georgia, could be called upon to play some, too.
“I mean football’s football,” Lofton said. “The bigger the game, the more excited you get, but you still have to do everything you used to do and treat everything the same and you’ll get the same result.”
That might be the case, but Atlanta has plenty of concerns as it prepares to face New York for the first time since losing 34-31 at Giants Stadium in 2009:
• Weatherspoon was held out of practice after feeling nauseated during Sunday’s blowout win over Tampa Bay. The team’s medical staff feared he might have a concussion, which Weatherspoon said Thursday wasn’t the case, and the NFL’s 19th overall draft pick of ’09 was cleared to participate.
• Brent Grimes, who starts at left cornerback, has been held out of practice the last two days and missed last Sunday with a sore knee. The 2010 Pro Bowl alternate is likely to start, but he was sidelined three straight games after undergoing minor surgery on his right knee. Grimes returned for Atlanta’s Week 16 blowout loss at New Orleans and was inactive last week with the Falcons already assured of a wild-card berth.
• Atlanta’s pass rush has been inconsistent all season, as evidenced in the last three games. The Falcons got just one sack against New Orleans, the NFC’s No. 3 playoff seed, but finished with a total of eight against two teams, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, with a combined record of 9-23.
Another major problem against quality opponents has been getting off the field on third down. The Saints converted their first nine chances and 10 of 13 in the Falcons’ 45-16 defeat two weeks ago.
“We can’t let that happen again,” Adkins said. “It’s a critical part of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
It might seem counter intuitive for the Falcons to be concerned first with stopping New York’s statistically impaired ground attack, but Atlanta wants to set up its blitz packages by establishing an early dominance against the run.
The Giants ended the regular season with the NFL’s least productive rushing attack, averaging just 89.2 yards, and had the fewest number of runs of 20 yards or more with four.
But the Falcons, who finished sixth against the run and 20th against the pass, fear the Giants’ ground attack is better than the numbers suggest. After all, New York’s 17 rushing touchdowns ranked sixth this year, and over their last five games, the Giants averaged 104.4 yards on the ground as Ahmad Bradshaw returned to complement Brandon Jacobs.
“Their coaching staff has been there for a long time, and we know what they’re going to do,” Weatherspoon said. “They’re stubborn. They’re going to try to run that ball on us. We know that, but we’ve got to go out there and stop the run and hopefully get some bodies around [receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks].”
The Falcons figure they have a slim chance of shutting down Cruz, who emerged as the favorite receiver of Pro Bowl quarterback Eli Manning with single-season franchise marks of 1,536 yards receiving, which ranked third in the NFL, and seven 100-yard games.
“He broke a couple of tackles and took it for 80 yards plus, so you’ve got to wrap him up because once he’s gone, he’s gone,” strong safety William Moore said. “He’s more of a quick, elusive guy, especially in his routes. You see that a lot of teams try to double-cover him, but he still comes out on top. It’s going to be important to try to isolate him. Not let him get started, but when you’ve got a quarterback like Eli, he’s going to get the ball to him somehow, so we’ve just got to narrow it down.”
Lofton wants Atlanta to concentrate on itself, not the Giants.
With Nicholas sidelined again this week and Peterson out for the season, Lofton thinks he, Weatherspoon and Adkins have enough to keep the second layer of the Falcons’ defense stout.
“They’ve got big backs, so it’s got to be great tackling,” Lofton said. “When they get to third down, they’ve got explosive receivers, so when they get out in space, we’ve got to tackle those guys.”