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Falcons' 'Predator' claims position of envy among pass rushers

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Quietly, the Falcons' John Abraham has become one of the NFL's most productive defensive ends.


FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Falcons defensive end and NFL sacks leader John Abraham got a text message early this week from Seattle defensive end Patrick Kerney.

"Great start. Seven sacks in five games," it read.

"Man, I texted him back and was like, 'Shut up. You had nine sacks in three games last year. I'm not even close. Compared to you, I'm doing nothing,'" said Abraham. "Osi Umenyioira texted me after the first game. He told me to 'keep up the good work, keep it going.'"

Abraham said the texts and calls are commonplace because the league's defensive end brethren are an egomaniacal, close-knit fraternity. Pressure Hurry Slamma at Sack U.

Al Messerschmidt / Getty Images
John Abraham leads the NFL with seven sacks in five games, and is taking aim at his career-high total of 13, which he established in 2001.
NFL sack leaders
Rk Player Team Sacks
1 John Abraham Falcons 7.0
2 James Harrison Steelers 6.5
3t Joey Porter Dolphins 5.5
3t LaMarr Woodley Steelers 5.5
5t Albert Haynesworth Titans 5.0
5t DeMarcus Ware Cowboys 5.0
» Complete sacks leaderboard

"It's a respect thing," Abraham said. "A lot of the ends talk. I talk to Osi. Me and (Michael Strahan) had a pretty good relationship when we were both in New York. Before we play Carolina, me and Pep (Julius Peppers) always talk. We admire each other. Pep can do things I can't do. I can do things he probably can't do. Jared Allen is a great player. We all talk about Dwight Freeney and how he spins and how much he spins. You admire stuff like that. Then you try to apply it to your game or take the things you do best to another level."

Right now, Abraham is feeling the most love -- sort of. While his peers have thrown bouquets of praise his way, he knows they're also trying to take his spot atop the coveted sack-leaders list. It's a position of envy, Abraham said, because he has constantly targeted others who have worked their way ahead of him.

"I respect everybody at my position, but I'm a hater," said Abraham, as he sported his black, stretch-fabric, custom-fitted, long sleeve practice shirt that, above a cryptic skull, read "Average Kills."

Abraham, in his ninth season, is a three-time Pro Bowl player, but is rarely mentioned with those in his fraternity. He had 10 sacks last season, but few outside of his peer group noticed. Abraham, in his fourth season with Atlanta, has 74.5 sacks since entering the league with the New York Jets. In conjunction with those numbers are 29 forced fumbles, a bonus that stems from the speed-rushing Abraham's forte of swatting the quarterback's cocked arm while he simultaneously tries to smash him to the turf.

What's hurt Abraham from being mentioned with the elite are injuries. In each the four seasons he's played in all 16 games, he's registered at least 10 sacks. In the four seasons he played 12 or fewer his numbers, overall, have been pedestrian.

"As I will keep saying until I'm done, as long as I'm healthy, I will be productive," Abraham said.

Abraham, known as "The Predator," is at full strength thus far and what he's been able to accomplish might signal his best season to date (he had a career-high 13 sacks in 2001).

Abraham is a marked man each week. The Falcons don't blitz much and the rest of the defensive line has yet to pose much of a threat -- Atlanta has just two sacks not recorded by Abraham. Teams don't pass much on the Falcons either, because their run defense is so suspect, limiting Abraham's opportunities.

"Teams are doubling him, chipping him, sliding everything his way," said defensive line coach Ray Hamilton. "He's finding a way."

Said defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who has one sack: "When a back tries to chip him, he gets skinny, then he works on the tackle, then he uses his speed to close."

Abraham's speed is his greatest weapon. The former high school track standout uses it to burst around tight ends, tackles and whatever other obstacles teams throw at him. Yet, he also has used it as a decoy more this season than any other. Abraham is also getting free by feigning an outside move and dipping inside, where a slight crease is enough for him to get through. On occasion, secondary blockers have also vacated the inside gaps in anticipation of Abraham's outside rush.

"With his speed, tackles will bail out on him to beat him to the outside cutoff and he just comes back underneath and does some damage there also," said Hamilton, who was Abraham's position coach during his rookie season with the Jets.

Abraham said he's always had the ability to make plays using moves that enable him to slither through the tackle-guard or tight end-tackle gaps, but he's been restricted by scheme or philosophy.

"A lot of coaches wouldn't let me do it because they were scared the offense would break contain," Abraham said. "In New York I actually had a coach tell me not to go inside. That was restrictive to some things I could do. Ray doesn't really care, as long as I get to the quarterback and honor my responsibilities."

The unpredictability of Abraham's track to the quarterback is being aided by the unpredictability of his alignment. Instead of solely playing right end, he has been moved to the left side at times, depending on personnel matchups and game situations. The determination where to play him is made during film sessions, where Hamilton's attention to detail unveils tendencies as small as a tackle being a step slow in his backpedal if a defense gives an inside-blitz look. That slight delay is all Abraham needs to get past him -- on the outside.

Hamilton also tends to play Babineaux alongside Abraham in passing situations. Babineaux (6-foot-2, 285), like Abraham (6-foot-4, 263), is undersized yet cat-quick for his position.

"I try to get in the quarterback's face and push him to Abe," Babineaux said. "It's all teamwork."

Added Abraham: "It's really nothing more than common sense. You try to put the best players against guys who aren't as good. When we played Kansas City, one side was a rookie tackle and the other was a vet. Ray told me I would probably do better against the vet in certain situations. I was like, 'Huh?' I end up getting a sack on the first play against the vet."

Abraham knows he might not remain as the sack leader. There's always an ebb and flow depending on weekly matchups. So he's prepared to call or text anyone who leapfrogs him because that's what guys in his fraternity do. Not all of the gestures will be genuine, though.

"You want to be on top," he said. "That's how it is at this position. We all know that. That's what keeps all of us pushing to be better. You have to be that way.

"But yes, again, I am a hater."

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