One of my favorite celebrations in the NFL is when a player places his hand in front of his facemask, puts his erected thumb on his coiled index finger and rotates his wrist as if he’s feeding himself. It’s a signature of Sean Weatherspoon’s, who plays weak-side linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons, and because of the exceptional strides he’s made in his game since joining the pros, he’s had many reasons to celebrate.
Weatherspoon was drafted into the league by the Falcons in 2010 when they selected him 19th overall in the first round. He was a dynamic talent coming out of Missouri, possessing the ideal skills for a defense that’s looking to slow down the postmodern offenses of today’s pass-happy league. He can run like the wind, hit like a truck, and he has endless passion.
The problem is, of course, that he has some weaknesses that personnel men identified while watching his college tape. One of which is that he isn’t always able to walk the talk. In other words, he was inconsistent at times, specifically downhill where he wasn’t always getting out of the grasps of blockers and tackling ball carriers. In some instances, he flashed the ability but hadn’t put it completely together yet. He was also undisciplined at times, losing sight of his keys and assignments, mistakes that led to significant yardage gains.
It was the same story in his rookie season in the NFL, but his sophomore season was different, as he was outstanding after a dramatic improvement in his weak areas. He was a quality defender in coverage, displaying outstanding range and open-field tackling, and according to Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson, he was fourth best against the run among all 4-3 outside linebackers last season.
While watching Weatherspoon in 2011, you would have never guessed that he didn’t create an interception or force a fumble (but he did have four sacks!), because it seemed that he was often around the ball (weird how that works), be it against the run or the pass. The liveliness, instincts, and athleticism that he brought to the Falcons defense was an integral part of the unit’s improvement, and he backed up his mouth with his performance on Sundays.
One of the Sundays when he impressed multiple times was during the third week of the season, when he helped stuff the Buccaneers’ run with excellent read and recognition skills.
The division rivals hailing from Tampa came out in their 12 personnel, featuring a single back and two tight ends, while the Falcons defense aligned in their variation of the 4-3 Under front. This meant Weatherspoon was in his natural position at weak-side linebacker (the linebacker nearest to the top of the image and away from the strength of the formation), or for short in football parlance, he was the “WILL”.
‘Spoon’, as he’s called, shifted over towards the middle because of the strength of the Bucs’ formation, which was to his right, but he was still considered a weak-side linebacker on this play. One of the details that I noticed while watching this play was how quick he recognized the offense’s tendencies and reacted.
For example, here is a shift initiated by wide receiver Mike Williams when Josh Freeman tapped his back foot. When Williams shifts, Weatherspoon immediately reads it and has an idea of where the play is going based off of his film study (hint: read caption).
Because of rigorous film study session in the days prior to the game, Weatherspoon is quick to ‘pull the trigger’ as NFL coaches preach and gets downhill.
One thing that’s common with linebackers who have issues in run support (and they can go from good to bad in a season; i.e. Karlos Dansby) is that they will let the ball carrier get to the line of scrimmage and then figure out what action is taking place — which is not what a coach looks for in that position. The linebacker needs to be able to quickly identify what’s going on, fill his assigned gap, and make the tackle. Weatherspoon executed those basic but fundamental steps well on this play.
Freeman took one step away from the center after the exchange, and Weatherspoon was already playing with a forward lean, aiming to knock the ball carrier down to the ground.
In this next image, Weatherspoon is seen near the center engaging with a blocker at the point of attack. As noted earlier, this was an issue of his at times in college, but he’s since improved this aspect of his game.
Another aspect of this play I liked was his agility on display. After getting off the block, he slid laterally to mirror Blount’s footsteps and then dipped his pads to get the leverage advantage required to bring him down. It concluded what was a fantastic illustration of assignment football and quality technique.
This read and recognition ability against the Buccaneers was something that stood out all season from Weatherspoon, who made great strides after showing some significant weaknesses during his first season in the league. He also improved in pass coverage, showing more discipline en route to eight pass deflections and several sublime tackles that prevented the opponent from moving the chains.
In a division that features deep talent at the tight end position between Jimmy Graham, Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey, Weatherspoon showed that he could hang with them down the field and mirror them on outside breaking routes, which is a very difficult task. He also displayed fantastic range in pursuit.
Weatherspoon should look to continue to take his game to new heights and become the leader of the defense now that Curtis Lofton swapped his black and red colors for the black and gold of the Saints.