The more I learn about Atlanta coach Mike Smith, the more impressed with him I am. When he first got to Atlanta in 2008, Smith saw he had a strong pass-rusher in John Abraham who tailed off late in games and late in seasons. So he instituted a sort of pitch-count plan for Abraham, playing him, at most, about two-thirds of the plays instead of his customary full games. The result: Abraham, in his thirties, has been better than Abraham in his twenties. Now 32, Abraham is finishing his best three-year stretch of a good career, with 34 sacks in three seasons entering Monday night's crucial NFC South match with New Orleans.
"We try to play John about 38 to 45 plays a game,'' Smith said. "It's not so much how many plays you play, it's how fresh you are, so they can all be quality plays.''
"I don't need as many plays to make the impact I need to make,'' Abraham told me Thursday. "What's great about how I'm being used is I'm fresh now. Week 15, 16, normally, you're so tired as a player. But I feel as good right now as I felt in week one or two.''
On Monday, look for Abraham, as is his custom, to switch between right and left ends, and to drop in coverage five or so snaps -- just to keep the Saints in a "Where's Waldo'' mode with him. What's also helped his production is the continued development of Kroy Biermann at the other end, with the brute force of Jonathan Babineaux in the middle. Smith and defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder don't have many Drew Brees-specific plans of attack, other than making him feel pressure in the pocket to get him off his comfortable spot. But they'd better do something a little different this time. In Brees' last three games against the Falcons (two wins, one loss), he's completed 79, 78 and 76 percent of his throws. Unless Atlanta wants to get into a scoring contest Monday night -- never wise against Brees -- Abraham better make his 38 snaps count.
It's all good with the Steelers today. They've got the mini-bye that comes along with a Thursday night game late in the season, their players will get Christmas Eve and Christmas off, and they didn't suffer any more injuries of note in a walkover 27-3 win over the meekest team in the NFL by far, Carolina. If the Steelers beat Cleveland in Cleveland next week, or if Baltimore loses either of its final two games (at Browns, Bengals), Pittsburgh wins the division -- and has one more off week to try to get Troy Polamalu -- and maybe defensive end Aaron Smith -- healed for the stretch run.
Last week in New England, Bulaga protected first-time starter Matt Flynn very well, until a major gaffe helped kill the Packers' chances to pull an upset. Trailing by four with a minute left and one timeout remaining, Flynn went back to pass and Bulaga failed to pick up outside blitzer Dane Fletcher. Flynn was sacked, and the Packers had to use their last timeout to regroup. That timeout was desperately needed at the end of the game as the clock ran out with the Packers trying, and failing, to rally. So now Justin Tuck and the Giants' ever-changing defensive front come to Green Bay Sunday, and Green Bay has a twice-concussed-this-year quarterback playing in Aaron Rodgers. Bulaga can't afford to make those mental errors again.
The rookie from tiny Hillsdale (Mich.) College has a fairly easy job this weekend: stop Dwight Freeney from laying the wood to quarterback Jason Campbell when the Raiders, still mathematically alive in the AFC West, play the Colts in the Black Hole. Veldheer was a steal in the third round last April, and he's made the early-season transition from center to tackle pretty smoothly. This will be his biggest test, obviously. "I'm sure they're going to scheme and not just leave him by himself,'' said Freeney. "That wouldn't be smart.''