By Michael Cunningham
Asked about fellow Falcons linebacker Akeem Dent’s play in the last game, Sean Weatherspoon flashes the kind of wide grin that suggests he thinks the Falcons might be on to something.
Dent played every defensive snap during a 23-20 victory over the Raiders in Week 6. It was the most extensive playing time for Dent since the Falcons drafted him in 2011.
Weatherspoon was curious to see how the first-year starter would handle himself in those circumstances. He said he came away impressed with Dent.
“I was excited to be out there with him for a lot of the time and just talking with him and see how he goes along with the ebbs and the flow of the game,” Weatherspoon said. “That was my first time really getting to play with him a lot. It was fun. I look forward to seeing him continue to have a bigger role in our defense.
“I think he will just get better as we keep working, and we will be better as a unit and get this run game stuffed, and we will be feeling a lot better about ourselves as a unit.”
The Falcons have struggled against the run this season, and Dent came out of the University of Georgia with a reputation as a run-stopper. But the Falcons, who have cited poor tackling and execution rather than personnel as the main culprits in their issues with run defense, don’t appear to be ready to expand Dent’s role.
Dent doesn’t normally play in the nickel defense, and the Falcons frequently have used that alignment this season. Before the Raiders game, Dent’s previous high had been logging 47 percent of the defensive plays against Carolina (30 snaps) in Week 4. He played a combined 17 snaps in the first two games of the season before entering the starting lineup.
With Stephen Nicholas slowed by a sore ankle against Oakland, Dent played all 73 defensive snaps and recorded eight tackles, including six solo.
“I feel like things went well,” said Dent, a Douglass High product. “There’s still a lot to work on and improve on.”
Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan offered a measured assessment of Dent’s play against Oakland, calling it an “average” performance. Nicholas is expected to resume his regular role against the Eagles on Sunday, so Dent likely will again play exclusively in the base defense.
The Falcons hope Dent is the heir to Curtis Lofton, who signed with the Saints as a free agent in the offseason. The Falcons drafted Lofton in the second round of the 2008 draft, and he started all four seasons while leading the team in tackles in 2010 and 2011 and in forced fumbles in 2010 and 2009 (tied).
Dent’s expected competition with former Pro Bowl selection Lofa Tatupu never materialized because Tatupu suffered a season-ending pectoral injury before training camp. The Falcons re-signed veteran Mike Peterson to ensure they had another proven veteran at the position in addition to Nicholas and Weatherspoon.
Peterson said Dent has a bright future because of his attitude and physical talent.
“He’s got that fire, run-to-the-ball type of game,” Peterson said. “Young guy, fresh legs. Always eager to learn, eager to make plays, which is a good thing. And he is humble about it, always trying to learn and make himself better, which is hard to find in this league.”
Weatherspoon saw evidence during the Oakland game that Dent is coming into his own.
Weatherspoon said that at one point he made an incomplete defensive call and Dent corrected him.
“He can line you up,” Weatherspoon said. “He had it down pat. He was telling me where to set our defense. That just says he is working hard and he is becoming what we think he can be, and I think he will do some great things.”
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