NFC Championship Game 2013: Falcons defensive cheat sheet

USA TODAY Sports

We take a look at the different aspects of the Atlanta Falcons defense heading into Sunday's NFC Championship Game

Yesterday, I discussed how we would be providing "cheat sheets" for this Sunday's 49ers-Falcons game, so you could better understand the Atlanta Falcons. Yesterday's post featured the Falcons offense, courtesy of The Falcoholic. Today, we bring you the Atlanta Falcons defense.

The big question mark will be John Abraham. He is dealing with an ankle issue that kept him out of the second half of the Falcons win over the Seahawks. He is limited in practice this week, but is expected to play on Sunday. If he is slowed in the pass rush, that is a significant benefit for the 49ers.

liberty_JAC will have some All-22 looks at them, but for now, here is The Falcoholic's rundown of the Falcons defensive unit (jerseys in parenthesis).

Defensive Line

Starters: DE John Abraham (55), DE Kroy Biermann (71), DT Peria Jerry (94), DT Jonathan Babineaux (95)
Reserves: DE Cliff Matthews (98), DE Lawrence Sidbury (90), DE Jonathan Massaquoi (96), DT Corey Peters (91), DT Vance Walker (99), DT Travian Robertson (92)

The Falcons have a competent defensive line in all aspects, but it would be difficult to argue that they excel in any area. John Abraham is a potential Hall of Famer and still a great pass rusher in his mid-30's, but he's banged up now. Opposite him, Kroy Biermann has a great motor and is underrated both as a pass rusher and a run stopper, grading out as an above average player in all facets. Their backups are giant question marks, unfortunately. Cliff Matthews offers a steady run-stopping presence, but Lawrence Sidbury can't get off the bench and Jonathan Massaquoi is a project with considerable potential as a pass rusher.

The interior of the line is deeper. Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry are solid players, with "Babs" in particular offering a slashing presence in the middle of the line. Vance Walker is the most underrated player here, though, a part-time rotational defensive tackle who has excellent pass rush instincts and can help collapse the pocket despite not being huge for his position.

Linebackers

Starters: OLB Sean Weatherspoon (56), MLB Akeem Dent (52), OLB Stephen Nicholas (54)
Reserves: LB Robert James (51), LB Mike Peterson (53)

The Falcons have one of the most athlete groups of linebackers in the NFL. Akeem Dent is a classic thumper who has grown into a very solid option in the middle, but he's not great against the pass. Sean Weatherspoon is great in coverage and has a knack for turning up with a big play, but you can run at him. Stephen Nicholas is much the same way, though he's such a great pursuit athlete that he's often able to make up for that. Overall, this isn't the biggest, hardest-tackling group, but their speed and playmaking ability makes them very tough.

The depth here is weak. Mike Peterson is a gamer but he's old, while James gets relatively few snaps and is basically an unknown quantity. Losing a starter here would really hurt the defense.

Secondary

Starters: CB Asante Samuel (22), CB Dunta Robinson (23), SS William Moore (25), FS Thomas DeCoud (28)
Reserves: CB Robert McClain (27), CB Chris Owens (21), CB Dominique Franks (29), S Chris Hope (24), S Charles Mitchell (26)

This is where the defense has made its money this year. Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson are both gamblers, but they can force turnovers and make big plays. When Robinson isn't forgetting basic tackling form, he's crushing opposing receivers. Pair that with a playmaking safety tandem in William Moore and Thomas DeCoud and you can see why the Falcons have been able to force so many turnovers and make plays in the red zone.

The reserves are strong at cornerback. McClain has excellent coverage instincts despite a lack of size, Owens has great speed and Franks is a project with some potential. Hope is a solid tackler who filled in capably for Moore earlier in the year, while Mitchell is a rookie project. There's depth here, and the Falcons use a ton of nickel packages. You'll see McClain a lot, in particular.

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