FLOWERY BRANCH — The undefeated Falcons will play without linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, their second-leading tackler, when they face the Dallas Cowboys at 8:20 p.m. Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
Weatherspoon was injured on a tackle attempt against Eagles running back LeSean McCoy with 9:03 left in the fourth quarter of the Falcons’ 30-17 victory Sunday. He had played all 435 defensive snaps this season before the injury. He missed the final 16 defensive snaps of the Philadelphia game.
“I want to be as transparent as I can be,” coach Mike Smith said. “We’ve ruled out two players for the game this week. Sean Weatherspoon will not play this week. Nor will (reserve wide receiver) Kevin Cone. Those are the two guys that we made a determination on. They are not going to be available for this week’s game.”
With Sean Weatherspoon out, second-year linebacker Akeem Dent will start in the nickel package, which the Falcons used on a majority of their defensive snaps under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. When they used their 4-3 base defense, Mike Peterson will play in Weatherspoon’s outside linebacker spot.
Dent is the Falcons’ middle linebacker in the base defense. He played some outside linebacker in the nickel against Oakland on Oct. 14 when Stephen Nicholas was slowed by an ankle injury.
“It’s no different for me,” said Dent, who’s played 41 percent (185 of 451) of the defensive snaps this season. “I always watch Sean when he’s in there. I’m getting mental reps if I’m not in the game or in practice.”
Weatherspoon walked through the locker room carrying a sandwich, but didn’t speak to the media. On Tuesday, he did a local radio interview and sounded hopeful about getting the game plan and being ready for Dallas.
It will be tough for Dent and Peterson to replace Weatherspoon’s production. He has 60 tackles, which trails only safety William Moore’s 63, according to the coaches’ film review stats. He also has three sacks, which trails only John Abraham’s seven.
Weatherspoon ability to play in space and cover running backs will be hard for Dent to replicate. Also, strongside linebacker Stephen Nicholas likely will cover tight end Jason Witten when the Falcons go to man-to-man coverage.
Weatherspoon was turning in a strong campaign. He had double-digit tackles in four games, including 11 against Washington. He also put a big hit on Washington rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III that knocked him out of the game. He also forced a fumbled against San Diego on Sept. 23.
“Akeem has had some snaps when we made the move in the Oakland game,” Smith said. “He actually played the backer position, so he’s got some snaps underneath his belt. It’s an opportunity for him to step up and play. We anticipate that he’ll do a nice job.”
Dent will have to play in space and cover a lot of ground.
“Akeem gets practice snaps when we are working on our (nickel) package during practice,” Smith said. “He gets an opportunity to work there. The good thing is that he’s going to be playing the same role when he filled in for Stephen. He’s been trained for that spot.”
Dent had nine tackles when he filled in against Oakland. He has 23 tackles on the season.
Dent knows that the linebackers will face a major challenge against Dallas tight end Jason Witten, who caught 18 passes for 167 yards Sunday against the New York Giants.
“It just depends on what we are doing within our scheme,” Dent said. “He’s a great tight end. He’s one of the good veteran tight ends in this league. He’s going to try to cause some problems.”
Guard Garrett Reynolds (back) also sat out practice Thursday. Peter Konz continued to play in his spot.
Wide receivers Harry Douglas (knee/ankle) and Roddy White (back) fully participated in practice after being limited Wednesday.
Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (knee), kicker Matt Bryant (back) and wide receivers Drew Davis (hamstring) were limited Thursday.
For Dallas, wide receiver Dez Bryant (hip) and running back DeMarco Murray (foot) did not practice.
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