FLOWERY BRANCH — While coming off the field after another long practice, Falcons defensive tackle Peria Jerry was downright giddy on Monday.
He’s playing well and feeling good, finally.
The early signs of exhibition season are pointing toward Jerry, whose career with the Falcons has been marred by injuries, returning to the starting lineup and being productive.
“I’m feeling better than I have felt since my rookie year, but I’m just going to stay focused and keep working hard every day,” he said.
Jerry was the 24th player taken in the 2009 draft, two picks ahead of linebacker Clay Matthews and five picks ahead of wide receiver Hakeem Nicks. Matthews has been to three Pro Bowls and Nicks has had two 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Both have helped their respective teams win Super Bowl titles.
Jerry was projected to be one of the anchors to the Falcons’ run defense. He opened his rookie year as a starter. But in the second game he suffered a gruesome knee injury that knocked him out of the season.
Jerry has been battling to reclaim his form since. He played as a reserve in 2010 and had just nine tackles.
Last season, he was also a reserve in the defensive line rotation and had 10 tackles. His highlight as a Falcon came when he forced a Michael Vick fumble that helped the team rally to victory over the Eagles.
Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan doesn’t have a history with Jerry.
So, his expectations for the former first-round draft pick’s performance were not jaded by the slow start to his NFL career.
All Nolan cares about is that Jerry played pretty strong in two exhibition games and that the Falcons will count on him heavily early in the upcoming regular-season.
“I don’t know what the expectations from before were, but I’m glad that he’s doing like he has because he’s going to get called upon for a considerable amount early on,” Nolan said.
With defensive tackle Corey Peters, who started the past two seasons, out indefinitely with an undisclosed foot injury, Jerry is playing opposite of Jonathan Babineaux.
Jerry had three tackles and a tackle for a loss against Baltimore on Aug. 9. Against Cincinnati last Thursday, he had two tackles and one sack.
“Yeah, he’s done a nice job,” Nolan said. “He did a nice job the other day in the game. He’s done well. Somebody has to step up. [Vance] Walker was out for a couple of weeks. But, I would say thus far that we are pleased with P.J.”
One scout who has seen the Falcons four times this exhibition season noted that Jerry is playing much stronger.
“One of the biggest surprises that I’ve seen is that Peria Jerry is finally playing after three years,” said the scout, who’s encouraged by his team not to be quoted. “He’s finally making some plays.”
Jerry, 6-foot-2, 295 pounds, worked hard this offseason in order to return to the form that he flashed at Mississippi.
“I feel 100 percent right now and I’m thankful for that,” Jerry said. “I just stay focused and stayed on my same routine.”
Defensive line coach Ray Hamilton preached to Jerry about making sudden and violent moves in order to penetrate the opposition’s offensive line.
“He’s showing me when I’ve got good rushes and how I can make them even better by doing certain little things,” Jerry said. “You just try to work on those things when you’re going full speed.”
Jerry believes his hand placement and power are the keys to success in the NFL trenches.
“It’s just a combination of both, knowing where your hands are at and knowing where you’re opponents’ hands are,” Jerry said. “You are just trying to keep them off of your chest and not give them too much of your body to hit.”
Falcons coach Mike Smith has no firm timetable on when Peters will return from his foot injury. The team is expecting a medical update the last week of the exhibition season. If Peters is cleared, it’s unlikely he’ll immediately resume his starting duties.
“Right now, Corey is only working on the side [with the training staff] and only working in the training room basically in a rehabilitation mode,” Smith said.
Jerry made four starts last season and has just six career starts. The Falcons are hopeful that he can fulfill the promise that made him a first-round pick.
“We’ve seen his suddenness and play-making ability in the two preseason games,” Smith said. “He’s in the best shape that he’s been in. He’s really worked extremely hard.”
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