|Falcons LB Sean Weatherspoon returned to practice on Wednesday after missing the past three games with an ankle injury. (US Presswire)|
At 9-1, the first-place Falcons have a lot for which to be thankful.
They have mounted four, fourth-quarter comeback victories thus far and managed to beat Arizona despite a career-worst five interceptions from Matt Ryan last Sunday.
On Wednesday, Atlanta got even more good news. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon practiced for the first time since injuring his ankle on Oct. 28 against the Eagles.
“We just want to ease him back in,” coach Mike Smith told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “I would anticipate that if there’s not a [setback] from today’s practice, he’ll be a full participant [Thursday]."
The Falcons have sorely missed Weatherspoon’s sound tackling throughout the past three games -- contests in which Atlanta has yielded an average of 116 rushing yards per game. In the past two games alone, Atlanta’s has given up rushes of 40, 52, and 56 yards, respectively. All of the runs exposed the Falcons tackling deficiencies and could’ve been prevented with better technique. According to Profootballfocus.com, the Falcons allow an average of 3.1 yards after initial contact, the second-highest mark in the league.
Before the injury, Weatherspoon was the team’s leading tackler with 52 stops but has since been bypassed. Second-year linebacker Akeem Dent, normally a two-down defender, has played nearly all of the defensive snaps in Weatherspoon’s absence. Dent recorded 20 tackles over those three games and was responsible for relaying formations from the sidelines against Dallas.
The Buccaneers have the ninth-best rushing offense in the league (128 ypg), due mostly to rookie Doug Martin. Three weeks ago, Martin rushed for 251 yards against Oakland, the same team the Falcons managed a mere 45 rushing yards against in Week 6.
If he returns on Sunday, Weatherspoon should help restore order to a defense that was considering playing DE Kroy Biermann at LB if any of the other linebackers would’ve gotten hurt.
Julio Jones update: Wide receiver Julio Jones has missed parts of the last two games while dealing with a right ankle injury he suffered two weeks ago in the loss to New Orleans. Jones didn’t practice on Wednesday, but he did participate in the walk-through portion of practice.
With Jones sidelined, the passing attack -- and thus their offense -- has occasionally looked extremely vulnerable. Defenses have been able to double-cover Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, negating the Falcons’ biggest strength: their depth.
Smith hinted that Jones would play a bigger role in practice on Thursday. Jones, the team’s second-leading receiver with 736 yards and five touchdowns, was a game-time decision last weekend but played the majority of the game before re-aggravating the ankle in the fourth quarter.
OL Hawley suspended: Backup C Joe Hawley was suspended by the league on Monday for four games after testing positive for Adderall. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Hawley took the pill in September without filing for a medical exemption with the league. He’ll begin his suspension immediately and be eligible for a return following the Falcons’ Dec. 16 game against the Giants. Hawley played just one snap against the Cardinals last Sunday.
As a fallout from the suspension, the Falcons signed G Harland Gunn (6-2, 310) earlier this week to bolster their OL depth. Gunn was most recently on the Saints’ practice squad after he was signed as a college free agent with Dallas following the 2012 draft.
For more Falcons coverage, follow Mike Singer @CBSFalcons.