After losing Curtis Lofton, the Atlanta Falcons' leading tackler the last three seasons, to a five-year, $27.5 million contract with the NFC South rival New Orleans Saints, the Falcons' plan at middle linebacker this season was to have 2011 third-round draft pick Akeem Dent compete with three-time Pro Bowler Lofa Tatupu for the starting job.
Tatupu was lost for the season to a torn pectoral muscle and was released with an injury settlement. On Thursday night, the Falcons might have lost Dent for awhile after the second-year linebacker suffered a head injury while covering a punt.
"He is a core special teams player," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said of Dent, via Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "He's our base linebacker. He's going to have to play some special teams throughout the season. When you are a base player you play about 45 percent of the snaps."
Smith is right. According to official playing-time documents, when Lofton was a rookie, and more of a two-down player, he played in nearly 50 percent of the Falcons' special teams snaps. However, as Lofton evolved into a three-down linebacker, his participation on special teams decreased to 28.9 percent (2009), 14.9 percent (2010) and 16.6 percent in 2011.
As a rookie, Dent played in nearly 70 percent of the Falcons' special teams snaps and was one of the league's most productive players, totaling 19 tackles. Before his injury last night, Dent had two tackles, including a sack of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
When Tatupu was lost for the season the Falcons re-signed Mike Peterson, who should get the work with the first-team defense while Dent goes through the league's concussion protocol program. Peterson is confident that Dent will be fine.
"I went in and checked on him at halftime," Peterson said. "It was brief. I'm going to go back in and make sure he's OK. I'm pretty sure he is."