FLOWERY BRANCH — When Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon first received his new helmet in the preseason, he rubbed the green dot on the back and started smiling.
With the departure of Curtis Lofton, Weatherspoon was elevated to the role of defensive signal-caller and his helmet was equipped with the communications device — hence the identifying green dot — to receive the play calls from defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
Weatherspoon is set to lead the defense against the unflappable Eli Manning and the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants in a pivotal NFC showdown on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
With a win, the Falcons (11-2) would move closer to earning a first-round playoff bye and the NFC’s top seed while dealing the Giants (8-5) a blow in their quest to wrap up the NFC East title.
It’s been a few months, but Weatherspoon still really likes his new helmet.
“It’s cool,” he said. “It takes a little bit out of you because you have to communicate so much. It’s something that I like doing. I love being able to hear coach in the huddle.”
With Nolan’s multiple calls that require disguised fronts and sometimes “dummy” looks, Weatherspoon has to make sure the entire unit is tuned in. There was one notorious blown coverage against Washington, but for the most part Weatherspoon has had the unit the same page this year.
“I look forward to it every week, going out there and trying to lead the guys and put the guys in position,” Weatherspoon said.
The defense started to gain confidence in Nolan’s schemes on Sept. 17, when they led to Denver quarterback Peyton Manning’s throwing three interceptions in the first quarter of the second game of the season.
The unit has at least two interceptions in three games, including five pick-offs against New Orleans on Nov. 29. The Falcons are the only team in the NFL with two safeties with four-plus interceptions. Thomas DeCoud has five and William Moore has four.
By all accounts, Weatherspoon grown into his role as the defense’s quarterback.
“It’s something that you earn,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “Sean has definitely become the leader of our defense. He, by far, has the most responsibility because he’s got to get the signals in and he’s got to get people lined up. I think he’s adjusted to it well.”
Weatherspoon missed three games because of an ankle injury. Second-year linebacker Akeem Dent put on the special helmet for games against Dallas, New Orleans and Arizona.
“We missed him early in the season and I think he’s really started to get back in stride,” Smith said.
The move was a natural progression for Weatherspoon, who was selected in the first round (19th overall) of the 2010 draft. He became a starter right away, but had to become accustomed to playing a critical position in the pro game.
“I’m getting more comfortable in that role,” Weatherspoon said. “I just have to continue to get better, continue to work, continue to lead and continue to prepare. We are going in the right direction.”
He believes that the unit is buying what he’s selling. On the field, he’s part tactician and part hype man.
“He’s good,” defensive end Kroy Biermann said. “He’s a great leader. He’s a real high-energy guy. He gets guys amped. He knows offenses and studies them well throughout the week. He does a real good job.”
Defensive tackle Corey Peters said: “He’s definitely somebody that has earned his respect in the locker room over the last three years. I think he’s done a good job for us.”
Weatherspoon might even mix in a joke with the call, but will also play the role of motivator, should the need arise.
“He’s good,” Peters insists. “He always has something to say at the right time. I think he’s always been a leader going back to college and high school. I don’t think it’s very difficult for him. It’s not forced.”
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