FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Falcons fans may have an especially hard time figuring out who's playing linebacker Monday night when Atlanta hosts the New York Jets.
Opening day starting linebackers Akeem Dent and Sean Weatherspoon will not play. Versatile linemen Kroy Biermann, who the Falcons also used in pass coverage like a linebacker, has a torn Achilles tendon and is out for the season.
Who will man the spots is a bit of a mystery.
Undrafted rookie Joplo Bartu is expected to make his third pro start. Omar Gaither appears likely to fill in for Dent (foot) in the middle just three weeks after signing with Atlanta. The other outside spot could come down to how sound undrafted rookie Paul Worrilow's left knee is.
If his left knee is not deemed sound, then perhaps Stephen Nicholas will re-claim the starting spot he lost heading into the season, re-gained two weeks ago because of Weatherspoon's sprained foot and then lost again last week to Worrilow.
"As you know in this league, it's a 'Next-man-step-up-and-make-plays,' mentality," said Nicholas, who led the Falcons with 116 combined tackles and assists in 2012. "I anticipate playing every week. In this league, you never know. I can see playing more."
Falcons head coach Mike Smith said that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and linebackers coach Glenn Pires have been "burning the midnight oil," trying to bring newcomers Gaither and Jamar Chaney up to speed. They signed Sept. 17.
"We have to determine with the group of linebackers what they're capable of doing," Smith added. Some of them did not "go through our offseason program so that puts them at a disadvantage. It's not an excuse; it's just a fact."
Gaither was practically offended when asked if his defensive coordinator was simplifying the game plan because the Falcons have several new and young players.
That includes rooking starting cornerback Desmond Trufant, second-year defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi and the linebackers.
This isn't the first time Gaither's had to ramp up quickly. He signed with the Raiders in the middle of last November, played in the last seven games and started four.