Atlanta's Abraham thriving in 'reduced' role

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

They sat John Abraham down in the offseason and told him that, on a rebuilding team, he would not be an every-down player.

An insult to the biggest remaining name on a roster that had just shed Alge Crumpler, Warrick Dunn and DeAngelo Hall? Well, you could have taken it that way. But Abraham didn't.

As it turns out that meeting with coach Mike Smith, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and defensive line coach might have been the best thing ever to happen to Abraham's career. A three-time Pro Bowler and one of the league's most talked about pass rushers during his time with the New York Jets (2000 through 2005), Abraham, like a lot of people in Atlanta, had become somewhat of a forgotten man since joining the Falcons in 2006.

But you can't forget him anymore. Through three games, Abraham is leading the NFL with six sacks. At his current pace, he would finish the season with 32 sacks. He's a major part of the reason why the Falcons, 4-12 a year ago, are off to a surprising 2-1 start.

It's all because Abraham has embraced what some would view as a reduced role.

"They came to me and said this would be best for the team," Abraham said.

It turns out it's also best for Abraham to not be out on the field for 50 or 60 snaps a week. At 30 and with a long history of injuries, Abraham has been limited to about 35 plays a week, but that's maximizing his production.

He sacked Kansas City quarterback Tyler Thigpen on the first play of Sunday's victory and forced a fumble with a sack in the third quarter. Abraham had three sacks in the season opener against Detroit and another in a loss to Tampa Bay.

"I think that he has bought into how we are going to use him,'' Smith said.

Abraham has more than bought into his role, which has kept him as the starter at right defensive end. He's welcomed it completely and said he's invigorated after struggling, with everyone else, through last year's disastrous season with coach Bobby Petrino.

"Things are just more relaxed around here this year," Abraham said. "Coach Smith is a professional and he understands players and knows how to mentor young and old players. He talks to us as grownups. He talks to us as men."

Smith and his assistants talked to Abraham as a man back in the offseason and that may be why his career, and the Falcons, are rejuvenated. They told Abraham they were looking for addition by subtracting from his playing time.

"They basically said, 'If we do it this way, it will work and it will help the whole team'," Abraham said. "They were being smart and it's showing up in my numbers right now. I've got to stay fresh and do it that way the rest of the year."

Keeping Abraham fresh was the main goal in Smith's thinking. The arrival of defensive line coach Hamilton reunited Abraham with his position coach from his rookie season with the Jets and that may be another reason why Abraham is looking so youthful.

"It's the same as it was before when I was with Ray. It's fun," Abraham said. "I've got somebody I can talk to. Ray can work through anything. He's trying to see me succeed."

Abraham is succeeding because the Falcons are giving him plenty of rest. They're keeping him on the sideline in a lot of obvious running situations and letting younger defensive ends Chauncey Davis and Kroy Biermann get more playing time.

"I've played the whole game before and that's fine," Abraham said. Now, we have some guys who are accustomed to playing the run and we're using them. That helps me stay fresh and lets me do what I do best."

The reduced role isn't the only way the Falcons are getting the most out of Abraham. They're moving him around a lot, putting him at right defensive end, left defensive end and dropping him into coverage.

"I've moved around some before, but never anywhere close to as much as I'm doing now," Abraham said. "It's good and it's fun."

It's also confusing for offenses that have to figure out where Abraham is and what he's doing. Four of his sacks have come from the right side and two from the left. But being the designated pass rusher isn't Abraham's only role.

He's also become a mentor to Atlanta's other starting defensive end, Jamaal Anderson. A first-round pick last year, Anderson had a disappointing rookie season and still has not recorded an NFL sack.

But the coaches have been complimentary of Anderson's play through the first three games and say it's only a matter of time before the sacks start coming. Like Abraham, Anderson also has been moving around. At times, he slides inside to defensive tackle.

"Jamaal is a totally different player than last year," Abraham said. "He now understands what he has to do. It's not showing up in the stats yet, but it will because he's matured as a person and a player. I've talked to him a lot and told him to just keep doing what he's doing and things will take care of themselves."

That's an attitude that Abraham has carried throughout his career and, now, it's working out better than ever.