NFC South breakout player: Curtis Lofton

Leading the NFL in tackles and making the Pro Bowl are goals for Atlanta linebacker Curtis Lofton. Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

On an August morning, Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Peria Jerry walked off the practice field and promptly played two games of "Follow The Leader.''

Asked how his surgically repaired knee was coming along, Jerry did what coach Mike Smith does when the topic is injuries. He gave some very general answers. He kept his eyes on the ground and kept mumbling things like, “You’ll have to ask coach Smith about that’’.

Then, the second round started and that’s when Jerry’s eyes picked up and glistened and his mouth started spewing out a steady stream of words, an act that had seemed impossible only a moment ago.

The change all came with one very simple question – “Tell me about Curtis Lofton?’’

“Big Bro? Big Bro? He’s the Big Bro,’’ Jerry said in a sing-song cadence. “That’s what we all call him. If things aren’t going right, Curtis is going to tell you. That’s why I call him Big Bro. It’s his defense. If he’s saying something, then you know something’s not right. People respect him when he tells you something.’’

Make no mistake about it, the Atlanta defense is now Lofton’s defense. After deferring to Keith Brooking as a rookie two seasons ago and Mike Peterson last season, the middle linebacker has taken control of a unit that very well could determine if the Falcons, 9-7 last season, live up to their “Rise Up’’ advertising campaign.

“You can’t be anointed as the leader,’’ Smith said. “You’ve got to play efficiently and you’ve got to play effectively. You’ve got to walk the walk, and he does that. Curtis has earned the right to be a leader, and the fact he earned it is what’s going to make him good at it.’’

As I made my trek through training camps this summer, I talked to coaches, players and front-office people about candidates to call this year’s “breakout player.’’ I got it right last year when I gave the title to New Orleans receiver Robert Meachem, who responded with nine touchdown catches and helped the Saints win the Super Bowl.

I want to get it right again, and I considered a bunch of names that were thrown at me. But Lofton was the one I kept coming back to, and a lot of it had to do with what his coaches and teammates said about him. A lot of it had to do with what Lofton said when we sat down and talked on a bench in Flowery Branch, Ga. He’s a man with some very lofty goals.

“I’d like to make the Pro Bowl,’’ Lofton said. “I’d like to lead the NFL in tackles. Just push myself to be a more complete player, that’s my No. 1 goal.’’

That’s a pretty good goal for someone who already was a pretty good player. Lofton’s been starting since he joined the Falcons as a second-round pick in 2008, and he finished second in the NFL in tackles last season.

Can you really consider someone like that a breakout player? Well, if you look at it the way Lofton does, I think you can.

“Last year, I had the tackles and I had the forced fumbles,’’ Lofton said. “But I never had the game-changing plays.’’

That might happen, because the game now has changed for Lofton.

“He’s been productive in his first two years,’’ defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder said. “But the big thing right now is he’s taking a little bit more ownership of our defense. He’s much more vocal and much more confident, and that’s going to be very important for us.’’

That was obvious on the practice field this summer. With Jerry returning from injury, a strong camp by defensive tackle Corey Peters, the acquisition of free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson and the arrival of first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon at outside linebacker, the Falcons are expecting big things from their defense.

If you watched the defense practice at all, two things jumped out immediately. The overall speed of the defense is significantly faster than last season. The volume also is a lot higher on the practice field. Much of that’s coming from Weatherspoon, who is a non-stop talking machine. He’s the rah-rah rookie, which is nice.

But watch and listen long enough and you’ll see and hear that Lofton is the voice that counts most on this defense. He’s the guy grabbing other players when they mess up or giving them a shout of encouragement when they make a good play.

“He’ll get in your face and tell you if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do,’’ safety Thomas DeCoud said. “People can tell if you’re doing it because you’re told to do it or if you’re doing it because you want to. You can tell he wants to do this now, and that’s why everybody listens to him.’’

There was no sit-down where Smith told Lofton it was time to step up and be a leader. It’s been a natural evolution. When Lofton came in as a rookie, Brooking still ran the show because he seemingly had been there forever. Besides, Lofton didn’t really feel comfortable talking much then, because he was only a two-down player. He came off the field in obvious passing downs.

That began to change last season when the Falcons decided to make Lofton an every-down linebacker. He adjusted well to dropping in coverage, but he left the vocal part to Peterson, who had been brought in as a free agent, in large part to provide some veteran leadership for a young defense.

Brooking left for Dallas in 2009. Peterson is getting near the end of his career and sat out much of camp with an injury.

A new leader needed to emerge, and a new leader has emerged. It’s Lofton. The Falcons knew it was time and Lofton knew it was time.

“As a middle linebacker, you’re the guy that people look to to be the leader of the defense,’’ Lofton said. “You’re the guy that makes all the calls and adjustments. My first two years, I was learning and still growing into that position. Now, in the third year, I feel like it’s really my defense. I take responsibility for lining everyone up. If something goes wrong, I want the coach to come to me so I can handle it.’’

That’s why the Falcons think Lofton is about to handle a breakout season.