One of this season’s best homecoming stories went out the window this week, and it has forced the Atlanta Falcons to scramble for linebackers.
Sean Weatherspoon, who spent the first four seasons of his career with the Falcons and then jumped to the Arizona Cardinals last year before returning to Atlanta, will miss the rest of the season after tearing his Achilles tendon.
“I feel awful for him,’’ Falcons owner Arthur Blank told ESPN. “He played well for us. He sustained a couple of significant injuries. We felt fortunate getting him back this year. Both on and off the field, he’s a natural leader. He’s going to be missed. Sean has been a fan favorite for a long time and for a lot of reasons.’’
Suddenly, a team that everything was breaking perfectly for, has a crisis on its hands. The 3-1 Falcons travel to Denver to play the Super Bowl champion Broncos on Sunday. If playing without Weatherspoon isn’t enough of a problem, there’s more to the story.
The Falcons have a bunch of other injuries at linebacker. Starting middle linebacker Deion Jones has an ankle injury. De’Vondre Campbell (ankle) and Paul Worrilow (grown) also are banged up. Veteran Phillip Wheeler will take over Weatherspoon’s place on the strong side. If Jones can’t play Sunday, LaRoy Reynolds would take over at middle linebacker.
The injuries have left the Falcons so thin at linebacker that they made a move that smacks of desperation this week. They signed A.J. Hawk, who had been out of football and was dabbling in broadcasting in Ohio. Hawk, 32, once was one of the best linebackers in the league. He spent nine seasons with Green Bay and left as the franchise’s all-time leader in tackles. He also spent last season in Cincinnati.
The initial plan for Hawk is to use him as a backup in the middle and on the weak side. But Hawk could end up in the starting lineup if the injury woes continue.
That might not be a bad thing, even though Hawk clearly is past his prime. While Atlanta’s offense has been terrific this season, the defense has been mediocre. The Falcons don’t have many leaders on their defense and Hawk could step right in and be one. That’s why the Falcons are working feverishly to get Hawk familiar with the defense. They could use his experience right away.
“He’s played three-deep,’’ coach Dan Quinn said. “Each team or system may have some small nuances, but that’s what was at hand to help get him ready. Very bright guy. Very good football mind. Now, it’s about learning the concepts and getting some reps this week to bring him up to speed as fast as we can.’’
Falcons defensive backs coach Marquand Manuel was Hawk’s teammate in Green Bay in 2006 and undoubtedly played some role in the linebacker signing with Atlanta. Although Manuel coaches another position, he has been active in trying to help Hawk get ready as soon as possible.
“I’ve already been in his ear asking him a bunch of stuff,’’ Hawk said. “I feel great physically. Mentally, it’s the main thing to figure out whatever role I might have, to try to perfect that.”
“The reps that I do get in practice, I have to try to make the most of them for sure. I’m trying to lean on the other guys and ask them questions. I have to try to see the defense through their eyes.’’
For the moment, Hawk is leaning on the rest of the defensive players. But, if he can learn the system quickly, the defense could have a new leader in Hawk.