NFC South: Sean Weatherspoon

Many have voiced support for Michael Sam as he aspires to be the first openly gay player in the NFL. Add Atlanta Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to his list of supporters.

Weatherspoon was a senior at Missouri in 2009 when Sam was a redshirt freshman.

"I was happy Mike was able to come out and be himself," Weatherspoon said Monday, his first public comments about his former college teammate. "I think the thing right now is that he would rather focus on football. But it's kind of tough, with everybody just wanting to talk about the potential of a gay player being in the locker room. To me, it's not a problem. I've already been in the locker room with Michael. Guys didn't talk about it, but we all kind of knew."

Sam publicly acknowledged his sexuality in February. Several months earlier, before the 2013 college football season, he came out to his Missouri teammates. Weatherspoon, who remains close to the Missouri program and attends Tigers game when possible, knew about that meeting.

“In training camp is when they talked about it,” Weatherspoon said. “And that's when I knew about [Sam's sexuality], because I have young little brothers still there.”

The Missouri players kept word of Sam's announcement inside the program, respecting their teammate's decision to come out publicly on his own terms.

“That's just how we are out there," Weatherspoon said of the tight bond between members of the program. "It's really a different place. ... That support is there. The coaches do a good job of attracting guys that are about family. And you get that family feel. Like people say, 'Family is everything.' Even though it's an extended family, it's still our family.”

The next phase for Sam is proving to NFL personnel that he's more than a "tweener" and is capable of making plays as a pass rusher in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defensive scheme. He wasn't overly impressive at the NFL combine, although he did improve his numbers during Missouri's pro day. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay initially gave Sam a fourth-round grade.

"For right now, my advice to Mike is just to make sure you stay in shape because at the end of the day, it doesn't matter who you date," Weatherspoon said. "It's all about what you do on Sundays. That's going to determine how long you play here. The main thing is football.

"We are in a time where the locker room has not matured yet. But Mike, he's a guy with a great sense of humor. I think after a while, it won't be a big deal at all. Hopefully it's not going to be a big deal to the team he goes to."
Atlanta Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who injured his right knee in last week's win over Washington, is inactive for Monday night's game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Weatherspoon didn't practice all week leading up to the game and was listed as questionable on the final injury report. Without Weatherspoon, the Falcons will turn to Stephen Nicholas as the third linebacker in the base defense, alongside rookies Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu.

Rookie safety Zeke Motta, who injured his neck in practice last week, also is inactive after making his first career start last week. Veteran free safety Thomas DeCoud is back in the starting lineup after missing last week with a concussion.

Also inactive for the Falcons are wide receiver Darius Johnson (high-ankle sprain), running back Josh Vaughan, tackle Terren Jones, tackle Sean Locklear, and defensive tackle Travian Robertson.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons starting linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who injured his right knee in last Sunday’s 27-26 win over the Washington Redskins, is questionable for Monday night’s game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Weatherspoon has missed seven games this season with a Lisfranc foot sprain. His latest injury forced him to miss practice all week, which seems likely to keep him from playing against the 49ers.

Weatherspoon exited last Sunday’s game immediately after teammate William Moore’s third-quarter interception.

If Weatherspooon is unable to go against the 49ers, Stephen Nicholas would start at linebacker next to rookies Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu, provided the Falcons begin the game in their base defense.

Nicholas, who lost his starting job earlier in the season, played well after replacing Weatherspoon last week. He finished with five tackles and a forced fumble in the red zone despite playing just seven defensive snaps.

"That’s what it’s about: being productive,’’ Nicholas said. "But I’m just going out there and doing my job. That’s all.’’

Nicholas took some criticism after last season’s NFC Championship Game for his defense against speedy tight end Vernon Davis as well as a crucial second-quarter unnecessary roughness penalty. However, his tackling could be a key factor Monday night as the Falcons try to contain running back Frank Gore.

"They understand what I can do and what I bring to this team,’’ said Nicholas, the team’s leading tackler in 2012.

In other injury news, rookie free safety Zeke Motta, who suffered a neck injury during Wednesday’s practice, was ruled out for Monday night, as was rookie wide receiver Darius Johnson (high-ankle sprain). Being without Motta leaves rookie Kemal Ishmael as the backup safety behind starters Thomas DeCoud and Moore.

DeCoud is set to play after missing last week with a concussion.

Tight end Tony Gonzalez (toe) is listed as questionable but is expected to play. And running back/special-teamer Antone Smith, who missed last week’s game with a knee injury, is listed as questionable but practiced the past two days.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith sounded cautiously optimistic about the knee injury suffered by linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, and expects free safety Thomas DeCoud back in the lineup off a concussion.

Weatherspoon injured his knee in Sunday’s 27-26 win against the Washington Redskins. It remains unclear whether it is the same knee injury that landed him on the injury report prior to the Green Bay game.

"I do not have an update on Sean," Smith said Monday. "We met this morning, and there was no update. I anticipate that if there’s anything that you guys need to know, we’ll let you know. If not, (then) on Wednesday, we’ll see where he’s at. (I) believe that he’ll be ready to go at some point in time this week."

The Falcons next play Dec. 23 at San Francisco on ESPN's "Monday Night Football."

If Weatherspoon is unable to go, Stephen Nicholas would return to the starting lineup alongside rookies Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu. Nicholas had five tackles and a forced fumble after Weatherspoon left Sunday’s game.

As for DeCoud, he missed the Redskins game after suffering a concussion against Green Bay. DeCoud stood on the sideline Sunday.

"Thomas will go to the next step in the protocol," Smith said. "He will be participating in practice on Wednesday, but it will be non-contact. We’re anticipating that we’ll have Thomas back, barring any setbacks in practice."

Smith reiterated his stance from last week about not having any intentions of shutting DeCoud down for the season.

"The doctors will make that decision based on what they say," Smith said. "If they have cleared him to go out and play, we need to have Thomas out there on the field. It gives us the best chance to win."

The Falcons went with rookie seventh-round pick Zeke Motta in place of DeCoud on Sunday, and Motta admitted making a few mistakes in coverage.

"I thought Zeke did some good things," Smith said. "Obviously, as we mentioned, there are some learning opportunities, some learning situations on certain plays. I thought as the game went on, he played much better.

"There at the end of the ball game, I thought that he made some very physical tackles. And it was his first time starting in the National Football League, and he did a good job for us."

Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White to play

December, 15, 2013
ATLANTA -- Tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Roddy White are active for the Atlanta Falcons, as expected, despite being listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins.

Gonzalez has been dealing with a nagging toe injury, and White banged up his left knee against the Green Bay Packers last Sunday.

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (shoulder) and safety Zeke Motta (hand) are active, also, despite being listed as questionable.

Safety Thomas DeCoud (concussion) and running back Antone Smith (knee) are inactive. Also inactive: linebacker Omar Gaither, tackle Terren Jones, tackle Sean Locklear, tight end Chase Coffman, and defensive tackle Travian Robertson.

For the Redskins, quarterback Robert Griffin III is inactive, and will be replaced by Kirk Cousins. The other inactives: safety Bacarri Rambo, cornerback Chase Minnifield, linebacker Brandon Jenkins, linebacker Darryl Tapp, guard Josh LeRibeaus, and tight end Jordan Reed.

Sean Weatherspoon supports Mike Nolan

December, 12, 2013
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – While offensive players such as Matt Ryan and Tony Gonzalez expressed support for offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter moving forward, at least one Atlanta Falcon did the same for defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, known as the team’s vocal leader, sees no reason why Nolan’s status for next season should be questioned, even despite the team’s defensive woes.

"We’re really comfortable with Mike,’’ Weatherspoon said. "Everybody on our defense really speaks highly of him. They really enjoy working with him. We would hope that they keep him around here.

"But, you know, it’s a business, man. Things happen. And you just have to continue to keep your focus on the right path. You have to keep working regardless of the situation.’’

When asked point blank if he expected to come back next season, Nolan responded, "Come back? That’s the team’s decision, not mine.’’

Nolan went on to talk about the roadblocks encountered by the team this season, specifically the inordinate amount of injuries. He said he has been pleased with some of the defensive gameplans but not totally satisfied with the execution of those game plans.

Nolan’s defense ranks 30th (out of 32 teams) against the run, 29th in points allowed, and 26th in total defense as the Falcons prepare to face the Washington Redskins on Sunday.

On a positive note, the struggles of the 3-10 Falcons have allowed Nolan to get a closer look at some of his young defenders as the team continues to build toward the future.

"I think the future is bright,’’ Weatherspoon said. "I looked on the tape from last week and I remember one play – an outside running play to (Packers running back) Eddie Lacy – you see the guys who made the tackle were rookies. You look and see [Stansly] Maponga, Malliciah Goodman, [Paul] Worrilow. You see Joplo [Bartu]. You see [Desmond] Trufant.

"All the guys in the frame, they’re really stepping up here lately and playing a lot of ball. It gives you confidence going into the future. They’ll know what they’re doing. They’re going to be comfortable playing ball. And I think the only way to go is up for them.’’
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It wasn’t the ideal way for Sean Weatherspoon to score his first career touchdown, but he’ll take it.

The Atlanta Falcons linebacker’s 71-yard interception return for a score Sunday was the result of Weatherspoon grabbing a ball that bounced off the foot of teammate Paul Worrilow. Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn delivered the pass, which was initially tipped by Falcons defensive lineman Peria Jerry before it bounced off Worrilow’s right foot.

Most of the Packers seemed confused by the play and stopped. Weatherspoon didn’t.

"We’re just coached to finish," Weatherspoon said. "You want to sell it, even if it ain’t ... so what if it hit the ground, you still have got to take that chance.

"That’s a great play by Worrilow. I’m not sure what happened to the ball before he hit it -- before he kicked it, actually. It’s awesome, though."

Weatherspoon, who missed seven games with a Lisfranc foot sprain, made the play much more dramatic with his long run and a smooth sidestep to avoid 318-pound Packers offensive guard T.J. Lang.

"I had to cut back," Weatherspoon said. "That’s why we kind of have to time it up where I didn’t want to exert too much. And I cut back on him, and the guys just led me."

Robert Alford threw the key block on Packers receiver Jarrett Boykin while Worrilow raced down the field also looking to clear a path for Weatherspoon. Worrilow explained how the play got kick-started.

"It was just a reaction," Worrilow said of the kicked ball. "It’s not like I was trying to kick it to myself. I really had no control over it. It was just a natural reaction. I was just trying to keep the ball in play. Fortunately, it went to Spoon and not somebody else.

"As soon as I saw he had it, I took off trying to make a block for him. It was a big play. It was a big momentum swing."

Yet the Falcons couldn’t sustain the momentum. They scored two touchdowns as a result of turnovers: the Weatherspoon return and Matt Ryan's 2-yard touchdown pass to Tony Gonzalez after Malliciah Goodman recovered a Flynn fumble, caused by William Moore.

Although the result was a victory for the Packers, the kicked interception is sure to be the most memorable moment of the game.

"That was a unique play in terms of the ball was tipped and then it was kicked up in the air," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "Sean made a great run after the catch. And we had some guys doing a nice job blocking downfield."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Mike Smith didn't get all his players back to full participation, as he had hoped, but the coach still likes the overall health of his Atlanta Falcons heading into Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers.

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and offensive lineman Peter Konz, both of whom were limited during Wednesday's practice, had full participation during Thursday's session. Weatherspoon is coming off a knee injury, Konz a tweaked ankle.

Tight end Tony Gonzalez and safety Zeke Motta were the only two Falcons limited on Thursday. Gonzalez continues to deal with a toe injury but is healthier than he's been in weeks. Motta broke a finger on his right hand and continues to play with a cast.

Roddy White's absence from the injury report for the second straight week means the receiver is close to full strength, although White told his previously sprained right ankle continues to bother him.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said he was fined "a little less than $20,000" for his hit on Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel last Sunday.

Weatherspoon picked up a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer on the first-quarter play. The rookie Manuel had to be taken out of the game for a snap and was replaced by backup Thad Lewis.

Players are typically fined $15,750 for such infractions.

Fellow Falcon William Moore also was flagged for unnecessary roughness against the Bills and could have received a fine. Moore was not available during Wednesday's open locker room session. His latest penalty came as a result of a high hit on Bills receiver Robert Woods.

Moore already has been fined a total of $74,550 -- according to NFL records -- for four separate illegal hits this season.
Tony Gonzalez, Curtis LoftonAP Photo/David Goldman"It's not the outcome that we wanted," Tony Gonzalez said, but "I'm happy the way we played."
ATLANTA – Sean Weatherspoon looked every one of his defensive teammates straight in the eyes before Thursday night's game and encouraged them to play like there was no tomorrow.

The Atlanta Falcons linebacker had delivered plenty of emotional sermons before, including a tearful one at halftime of the Seattle game when he was still on injured reserve. But this time, he was in the line of battle with his teammates in full uniform, prepared to fight right alongside of them.

"Just motivation," Weatherspoon said of this pregame speech. "You get out there and play together, and don't worry about anything else. As long as we have a chance to get on the field, we still feel like we have a chance to help our offense, help win the game. We just talked about playing with a certain energy, man.

"Ultimately, we didn't get the result that we wanted. But we did play with more energy tonight."

Any notion that the Falcons had mailed in the season was put to rest Thursday night, even despite their 17-13 loss to the rival New Orleans Saints. The Falcons played with a sense of urgency despite dropping to a hard-to-imagine 2-9 on the season. They took this game personally, not just because many Saints fans infiltrated the Georgia Dome.

Trying to snap a four-game losing streak and attempting to salvage a dismal season was enough inspiration.

Tight end Tony Gonzalez, who insisted this week that the team hadn't quit on coach Mike Smith, was asked why the Falcons came out so motivated.

"Because we've been getting embarrassed," Gonzalez said. "I hope that's the reason why. We're a better football team than what we've showed these last [four] weeks. I think the way we played today was back to that old Falcons style of football. Obviously, we didn't come out and win. But I'm happy. I'm encouraged by it.

"And don’t get me wrong -- we still lost. It's a bad taste in our mouths. It's not the outcome that we wanted. We're not accepting it. … We're still disappointed. But at the same time, I'm happy the way we played. If we keep that same attitude, like I said before, things are going to be looking good for us in the future. No doubt."

Progress was watching the defense force a three-and-out on the opening drive and limiting Drew Brees and the Saints to three points in the second half. Progress was the Falcons' offense getting consecutive 8-yard runs from Steven Jackson and the line paving the way for Jackson's 1-yard touchdown plunge on its opening drive.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
AP Photo/Dave MartinSteven Jackson went over the top for his first rushing TD as a Falcon.
Progress was having a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter, something the Falcons haven't experienced in recent weeks.

"I felt like the effort in the ballgame was good and gave us a chance to win the football game," Smith said. "I like how we started the game. We liked how we started the game. Felt like we played well, in spurts.''

The Falcons might have surged ahead had it not been for an untimely fumble in the red zone by rookie receiver Darius Johnson at the start of the fourth quarter. It was another one of those miscues symbolic of how the season has imploded. But Smith emphasized that the fumble was not why his team lost the game.

There were other gaping holes. The offensive line allowed too much pressure on Matt Ryan, who was sacked a season-high five times. The defense surrendered another handful of explosive plays, including a 44-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Saints tight end Jimmy Graham on a play that safety William Moore admitted he botched.

Despite those deficiencies, and the costly fumble, the Falcons had a chance in the final minutes. Smith stood behind his decision not to go for a fourth-and-15 from the Saints’ 34-yard line trailing by four with 2:24 left. He opted instead for a 52-yard field-goal try, which Matt Bryant missed after the Saints froze him with a timeout. Smith's thought was to pull to within one with the kick, stop the Saints with three timeouts and then drive for a game-winning field goal.

It didn't work out exactly as planned, but at least the Falcons' effort was spirited.

"I thought that we responded to some momentum changes, to some adversity, in the football game," Smith said. "But still not good enough. When you don't win, it's not good enough."
Marques Colston and Paul WorrilowAP PhotoPaul Worrilow, right, and the Falcons defense will try to slow down Marques Colston and the Saints.
Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith seemed annoyed by the question, but he answered it.

A reporter asked Smith this week if he is concerned about there being more New Orleans Saints fans than Falcons fans at the Georgia Dome on Thursday night.

"Absolutely not," Smith said. "Our fans, I think, are the best in the NFL. We've got a great record since we've been here in terms of winning football games. They've been very supportive. I know that they are disappointed and they are discouraged, but there's nobody more disappointed and discouraged … than us here in this building and on this football team.

"We certainly hope that they'll be out there supporting us this week. It's a big division game."

The matchup would be much more intriguing if the 2-8 Falcons were on pace with the 8-2 Saints. But that's a far-fetched scenario now. Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break down the NFC South clash:

McClure: Hey Mike, I know the Saints hold a decisive edge going into this game, but this is quite a rivalry and there is much hatred between the teams. Did any of the players give any specific examples of the bad blood that exists when these rivals collide?

Triplett: No one really mentioned bad blood, but we know it exists from past examples. And no one denies the passion that exists in these annual matchups, even on these rare occasions when one of the teams is out of the playoff race. A few Saints players compared it to a college rivalry, like Stanford-Cal, insisting that the records don't matter when they square off. I think they'd also like to exorcise a few demons from their ugly Thursday night performance at Atlanta last season, so the Falcons shouldn't cling to any hopes that this might be some sort of trap game for New Orleans.

Vaughn, I haven't watched the Falcons too closely this season, but I keep being surprised that the hole gets deeper and deeper (especially after last week's loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Any signs that they're close to putting things together?

McClure: I don't see the Falcons rebounding this season, not with the Saints, San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers still left on the schedule. They have to start building momentum for next season. I believe Coach Smith has already started the process by giving players such as center Joe Hawley, running back Antone Smith, tackle Ryan Schraeder and safety Zeke Motta more playing time. I wouldn't say that the Falcons are tanking it for a draft pick, but having a top-five selection has to be in their minds.

Smith talked about looking at scheme in terms of turning things around. I could see the Falcons running the ball more to balance out the offense. And defensively, they have to consider dialing up more blitzes to generate pressure, because the front four is not getting it done. They'll have a tough time contending with Drew Brees. Certainly Brees is itching for the opportunity to pick the Falcons apart, correct?

Triplett: Yes, Brees should be the Falcons' biggest concern, as usual. He's playing about as well as ever. Even when he hasn't been dominant throughout games, he's been clutch in the fourth quarter. And he's as competitive as it gets, so he certainly hasn't forgotten his shockingly bad performance at Atlanta last season (five interceptions).

I'm not sure it would do much good to blitz Brees. Three of his biggest throws this past week came when the 49ers blitzed. The best formula for slowing down the Saints passing game has been getting physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage to disrupt routes and playing solid man coverage.

The best news for Atlanta is that Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles are both a little banged up (Sproles' status is questionable). How will the Falcons match up against Graham in coverage?

McClure: In watching the last game between the teams, I saw at least three different defenders try to match up with Graham, and Graham had no problem going up against Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud. In fact, Graham scored a 7-yard touchdown after DeCoud was late getting over in coverage. It will be hard to match up one-on-one against a player as talented as Graham -- no matter if his foot and elbow are still bothering him -- so I could see some bracket coverage. But I will mention that linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who just returned to the lineup from a Lisfranc foot sprain, did an excellent job covering Graham on at least one play in Week 1. And I saw Weatherspoon working hard last week on his coverage skills coming off the injury.

Mike, I see the Saints lost cornerback Jabari Greer for the season with a torn ACL. The Falcons have Roddy White back somewhat healthy and have gotten great production from Harry Douglas. How will Greer's absence affect the Saints in terms of defending a capable receiving corps?

Triplett: That's a great question, because the Saints' play at cornerback has really been one of the underrated reasons for their success this season. Their top corner has been Keenan Lewis, who is playing at a Pro Bowl level and generally shadows the opponent's top receiver. But Greer has been very reliable as the other starter, allowing the Saints to trust those guys in single coverage quite a bit.

The Saints have decent depth behind Greer. They're going to be counting on second-year cornerback Corey White, who has shown a lot of promise but will likely face a few growing pains. His performance will be worth watching, because I'm sure the Falcons will test him out. Of course, it helps the Saints that they don't have Julio Jones to deal with, so they won't feel too sorry for themselves.


W2W4: Falcons at Buccaneers

November, 16, 2013
Regaining form: Roddy White admitted he played a little tentatively in his return to the lineup last week off hamstring and ankle injuries. He was limited during practice this week but looks set to play Sunday in Tampa. Now, White has to rediscover his comfort zone as Matt Ryan's primary receiver. White could match up against Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis, a player considered the best shutdown corner in the NFL when healthy.

"He's always been a good player in this league," White said of Revis. "The thing about him is he does everything well. You've got to be technically sound in everything that you do and always coming back to the ball. You've got to use your hands against him. He's a very physical guy."

Fellow receiver Harry Douglas had a career-high 149 receiving yards the last time the Falcons played the Bucs, so maybe White can enjoy the same type of success.

Mental block: Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff certainly got in the minds of his offensive linemen went he went on radio and criticized the unit's run blocking. Dimitroff said his guys have to play with better pad level, something the Falcons worked on during Wednesday's padded practice.

"It's definitely something we've been working on the passed couple weeks," right guard Garrett Reynolds said. "I feel like we're making some improvements on it. That's something that we've known, and we know [Dimitroff] has known. We just have to keep trucking along, put it upon our shoulders and keep on rolling."

As a team, the Falcons have rushed for 100 yards in just one game this season (146 at Miami). They currently rank last in the league in rushing.

Feed the workhorse: Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said Steven Jackson needs more touches. "My opinion is Steven Jackson is a workhorse running back and we haven't been able to work him," Koetter said. "I mean, I think Steven is one of those guys that gets better the more he touches it."

Jackson might have to wait a week to prove Koetter right. The Buccaneers boast the league's fifth-best run defense, allowing just 95.8 yards per game. At least Jackson has the right mindset going into the game despite his career-low 3.2 yards per carry. "I am still very much durable," the 30-year-old Jackson said. "And I am healthy."

David and Goliath: Speaking of the Bucs' run defense, they boast one of the league's top linebackers in Lavonte David. Falcons head coach Mike Smith raved about David's ability. His variety of skills were evident during the Week 7 matchup between the teams, when David made two outstanding plays in coverage then dropped Jason Snelling for a loss -- all on the same drive. The Falcons better find a way to put a body on David or he might single-handedly disrupt the offense.

Getting a Spoon-ful: The Falcons finally get linebacker Sean Weatherspoon back from the Lisfranc foot sprain he suffered in Week 2. Weatherspoon might not be the cure-all for the team's defensive woes, but the Falcons sorely missed his leadership. At halftime of last week's loss to the Seahawks, Weatherspoon apparently gave a fiery speech in the locker room, one that apparently caused him to shed tears.

He practiced all week and set to be a three-down linebacker upon his return. Maybe he can help the defense create some takeaways -- the Falcons are 35-3 under Smith when they win the turnover ratio.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who missed the past two days of practice with a toe injury, returned to the field Friday and is questionable for Sunday’s matchup against Tampa Bay.

Gonzalez injured a toe on his left foot during last Sunday’s 33-10 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He appeared to be a bit hobbled when he walked through the locker room on Friday but gave the thumbs up. His participation in Friday’s practice was limited.

Gonzalez hasn’t missed a game since the 2006 season with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Falcons gave the 37-year-old tight end most of training camp off to prepare his body for the regular season.

If Gonzalez is unable to go, rookie Levine Toilolo and veteran Chase Coffman would have to contribute at tight end. Both Toilolo and Coffman spent extra time following Friday’s practice working on their route-running while being defended by linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.

Wide receiver Harry Douglas also returned to the field Friday after missing Thursday’s practice with a knee injury. Head coach Mike Smith said Douglas should be ready to go Sunday.

Weatherspoon, recently activated from injured reserve after suffering a Week 2 Lisfranc foot sprain, will be in the starting lineup against the Buccaneers after practicing all week. He is expected to start alongside undrafted rookie linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu, if the Falcons open the game in their base defense.

The only Falcons player ruled out for Sunday’s game was rookie defensive end Malliciah Goodman, who was sidelined all week with a calf injury.
Tony Gonzalez and Darrelle RevisAP PhotoIt has been a disappointing season for Tony Gonzalez's Falcons and Darrelle Revis' Bucs.
When the season started, the Atlanta Falcons were a trendy Super Bowl pick and a lot of people thought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could make the playoffs. As it turns out, both NFC South squads are floundering. They've combined for only three wins.

But these two teams are rivals and that means Sunday's meeting will be about pride.

Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas examine the matchup.

Yasinskas: Vaughn, I was one of those people who picked the Falcons to win the Super Bowl. Obviously, I was way off base. I know injuries have played a big role, but what else has gone wrong for this team?

McClure: Pat, I talked to Tony Gonzalez extensively after the last game and he was adamant about this all being about the injuries. I agree with him to a certain extent because you just can't lose a receiver as dynamic as Julio Jones and expect the offense to click in the same manner. It drastically changes the way defensive coordinators attack and allows them to focus more on shutting down guys such as Gonzalez.

The other injury I thought was significant was linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who is expected back this weekend after being sidelined since Week 2 because of a Lisfranc sprain. The defensive intensity hasn't been there throughout the season, and Weatherspoon would have provided a spark just from his fiery speeches alone. Not saying that he would have totally helped the Falcons avoid giving up 14 plays of 40-plus yards, but they would have been better with a healthy Weatherspoon.

Speaking of injuries, it looks as if both top running backs are out for Tampa Bay. Can Brian Leonard step in and run the ball effectively?

Yasinskas: I agree that getting Weatherspoon back should be a big boost for the Atlanta defense and the first priority whenever you play Tampa Bay is stopping the running game. Even with Doug Martin and Mike James lost to season-ending injuries, the Bucs still will be a run-first team. Leonard is going to be a big part of the offense now. He's a dependable veteran, who can do a little bit of everything. But I think the Bucs will try to use a combination of Leonard and second-year pro Bobby Rainey. The Bucs want to get Rainey a fair amount of touches because he's more of a home-run threat than Leonard.

Speaking of home-run threats, even without Jones, the Falcons still have some playmakers. Are Roddy White and Steven Jackson now healthy enough to make a significant impact?

McClure: Jackson said he was 100 percent now coming off a hamstring injury, and White continues to have his snaps monitored coming off a hamstring pull and high-ankle sprain. I thought Jackson showed signs of his old self with some tough runs against the Carolina Panthers. He then regressed against the Seattle Seahawks, but head coach Mike Smith blamed that on poor blocking. Jackson has a lot of pride and wants to show Falcons fans he was no fluke. But he can only do so much if the holes aren't there for him. He's averaging a mere 3.2 yards per carry.

As for White, he had one catch for 20 yards in his return against the Seahawks. More than anything, he wants to establish a rhythm so he can be back to his old self. The Falcons just need him to be the same type of playmaker when Jones returns next year. Shouldn't the Buccaneers have a new head coach by then?

Yasinskas: It's pretty obvious that Greg Schiano is on the hot seat. He has won only one game this season and two of his past 15 dating to last year. Ownership does like the way Schiano cleaned up the culture of the locker room that was established under predecessor, Raheem Morris. Schiano, who has three more seasons remaining on his contract, might have bought himself a bit more time by benching Josh Freeman and going with rookie quarterback Mike Glennon. But ownership also wants to see some wins. I don't know that there's a magic number, but my guess is Schiano needs to win more than half of his remaining games if he's going to stick around for next season.

I know Smith has had five straight winning seasons since taking over as head coach in Atlanta, but this year hasn't gone as planned. Since expectations were so high, is owner Arthur Blank's patience wearing thin?

McClure: I've watched Blank's reaction after the past two losses and he has been very supportive of Smith. He even embraced Smith like a long-lost son after a road loss to the Carolina Panthers.

Smith has been a winner since taking over in 2008 (58-31 record) and guided his team to the NFC Championship Game last season, although he's 1-4 in postseason games. I talked to general manager Thomas Dimitroff after last Sunday's game and he said Smith's going "nowhere" in reaction to speculation about maybe Jon Gruden being the team's next head coach.

Smith should get a pass on this season because of the injuries alone. But there are bound to be some staff changes in the offseason to correct some of the on-field problems plaguing the team.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, running back Jason Snelling, defensive tackle Corey Peters and defensive end Malliciah Goodman were held out of Wednesday’s practice.

Gonzalez suffered a toe injury on his left foot during last Sunday’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He hasn’t missed a game since 2006, so the injury would have to be significant for Gonzalez to miss this week’s matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Both Snelling and Peters were held out with knee injuries, while Goodman was sidelined by a calf issue. Snelling recently missed a game due to an ankle injury, but coach Mike Smith suggested that Snelling would return to practice this week.

Wide receiver Roddy White, who just returned to the lineup after hamstring and ankle injuries, was limited Wednesday with a shoulder injury. His status will be worth monitoring the rest of the week.

Also limited were linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (foot), defensive tackle Peria Jerry (toe) and running back Steven Jackson (toe). Weatherspoon was just activated from short-term injured reserve after suffering a Lisfranc foot sprain in Week 2.

Smith indicated the injury report was more about getting players rest than anything.

Smith also said newly signed offensive tackle Sean Locklear has been medically cleared. Locklear, last with the New York Giants, suffered a season-ending right-knee injury last December. His role with the Falcons has yet to be determined, but he prefers to play right tackle. The Falcons needed depth after losing left tackle Sam Baker to a season-ending knee injury.

Locklear went through a full practice on Wednesday.