Vivlamore reporting from the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons’ woes at middle linebacker continue – and the regular season is still weeks away.
Akeem Dent, the most recent heir apparent to the departed Curtis Lofton, suffered a head injury in Thursday’s exhibition opener against the Ravens. To make matters worse, the injury occurred while Dent was playing special teams.
There was no word following the game, a 31-17 Ravens victory, as to the extent of the injury or how long Dent would be out.
Falcons coach Mike Smith said he had “no regrets whatsoever” for having Dent play on special teams despite his role as a starter.
“He is a core special teams player,” Mike Smith said. “He’s our base linebacker. He’s going to have to play some special teams throughout the season. When you are a base player you play about 45 percent of the snaps.”
With the head injury, Dent will likely enter the NFL’s concussion protocol program.
“It’s tough, but it’s part of it,” linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “Linebackers have to play some [special] teams somewhere.”
Dent was to compete with Lofa Tatupu for the middle linebacker job vacated when Lofton, last season’s leading tackler, left via free agency to the division rival Saints. Tatupu, the veteran signed in the offseason, suffered a torn pectoral muscle lifting weights prior to the start of training camp. He underwent surgery and was waived following an injury settlement. The Falcons brought back Mike Peterson to serve in a reserve role and a tutor for Dent and play ahead of undrafted rookie Pat Schiller.
Dent, entering his second year out of Georgia, was injured on punt coverage with 9:52 remaining in the second quarter. After staying on the field for several minutes, he was taken into the locker room. The Falcons later announced that Dent had suffered a head injury and would not return.
“I went in and checked on him at halftime,” Peterson said. “It was brief. I’m going to go back in and make sure he’s OK. I’m pretty sure he is.
“The linebackers are pretty much built to play special teams and defense. That’s why I tease the guys and say we are the best athletes on the team. You ain’t going to see too many wide receivers go down there and cover, play the run, play special teams, play kickoffs.”
Dent led the Falcons with 19 tackles on special teams last season. He was named to the all-rookie team by Pro Football Weekly for his play on the unit.
“He’s going to be a playmaker for the Falcons,” Weatherspoon said of Dent. “We look to get him back on the field as soon as possible. … He is a great listener. He takes what coach says and goes out on the field and tries to work on it to get better at it. I can see it out there on the field.”
Tatupu signed to a two-year, $3.6 million contract in March. The former three-time Pro Bowler was trying to make a comeback after missing all of the 2011 season. His loss put Dent with the first-team defense, where he has been all training camp before starting Thursday’s exhibition alongside Stephen Nicholas and Weatherspoon.
Peterson was a starter in 2009 and 2010 before shifting to a reserve role last season. He started five games and played in 15 before going on injured reserve with a torn triceps that required surgery before the final game of the regular season. He was not tendered an offer when his contract expired in March.
“He was doing good,” Peterson said of Dent’s play prior to the injury. “I had my eyes on him, watching him. He was reading his keys. I just told him in the first preseason game just work on reading the keys. Read the keys and try to learn the system. The plays will come if you are doing the right thing.”
Lofton had 159 tackles last season and his departure left a hole in the middle of the Falcons defense. Dent’s injury is another roadblock in the attempt to fill the position.
- Chris Vivlamore