- Josh Weinfuss, ESPN Staff Writer
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- John Abraham likes quarterbacks.
They’ve paid his bills for 14 years.
They’ve placed him in the NFL record books. They may even land him in the Hall of Fame. If Abraham runs into the quarterback during the game, he’s having a good day.
And who doesn’t like good days?
It’s those guys in between him and the quarterback that Abraham doesn’t care for.
“I just don’t like the guy in front of me, the tackle,” Abraham said. “They aggravate the hell out of me. Quarterbacks are fine.”
Among the quarterbacks taken down by Abraham during his 124 career sacks, one name won’t appear on that list. On Sunday, Abraham will finally have a chance to hit Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. The two shared a locker room since Ryan was drafted in 2008, but like any quarterback in practice, Ryan was off limits.
Abraham swears he’s not giddy at the idea of finally bringing Ryan down. To the NFL’s active sack leader, Ryan is just another signal-caller, another target.
But remember, like Abraham said, he likes quarterbacks.
“It’ll be good to see my old teammates,” Abraham said. “At the same time, though, I got a job and I got to do my job.”
Abraham’s divorce from Atlanta wasn’t amicable, but the 14-year veteran swears he’s over it. At first, however, the hurt of being released stung. He was 34 when the Falcons cut him in March and Abraham had started to focus on the horizon.
Two more years, Abraham said, and then he’d have retired a Falcon.
“You’re comfortable in life,” he said. “I’m 35. Hey, I’m doing good. [It’s like] ‘Hey, I’m good, [and then it’s like] oh, Lord I ain’t good. I got a new job.’
The Cardinals signed Abraham at the start of training camp and had him penciled in as a third-down linebacker. It wasn’t the ideal situation for Abraham, who tried to hide his displeasure with not playing every down, but it was a job.
Being a third-down backer, Abraham said, is like being a nickel back. The pressure to come in on a few plays per series – if he’s lucky – and make a play weighs on a player. His 124 sacks were a product of preparation, not just off the field, either. Abraham would set up the offensive linemen as he learned their tendencies and the snap count.
Atlanta’s defensive line coach, Ray Hamilton, used to ask Abraham if he wanted to be a third-down backer. Abraham’s answer never changed.
“I was like, ‘hell no,’” Abraham said. “I was like, you don’t understand. I got to come in on one play and get ready. This guy is lathered up and ready to go.”
For the past four weeks, Abraham hasn’t had to worry about that. As chance had it, Abraham was given his shot in Week 4, after three Cardinals linebackers – Sam Acho, Lorenzo Alexander and Alex Okafor – went down for the season with injuries. It wasn’t how Abraham hoped to earn more time but he wasn’t about to waste his opportunity. His snap counts steadily increased and on Oct. 17 against the Seattle Seahawks, Abraham played 68 of 71 snaps – more than triple the 22 he played in Week 1.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has been impressed with how Abraham has handled the extra snaps. Arians, who seemed surprised as the words came out, said Abraham has actually “played better.”
With a nagging shoulder injury healed, Abraham feels like himself again and he’s looking like the Abraham of old.
He had his first two sacks of the season against Seattle and forced two fumbles, which gave him 46 for his career. According to STATS PASS, Abraham is two behind former Miami Dolphin Jason Taylor for most forced fumbles, although it’s not an official stat kept by the NFL.
It was just a matter of time before Abraham rounded into form, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said.
“He hadn’t had a minicamp or an OTA, or anything like that,” Bowles said. “I think he’s finally getting into football shape. He’s feeling good and he’s playing faster.”
Abraham is one of just five players from the 2000 draft still playing, but his production isn’t comparable to that of a player in the twilight of his career. On game days, his crosshairs are on the quarterback, but beyond that is a number – 142. That’s a half-sack more than how many former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan retired with. And Abraham, who befriended Strahan when Abraham played with the New York Jets, wants to top his “idol.”
At 124 heading into Sunday, he’s 2.5 sacks behind the late Derrick Thomas for 12th on the all-time list. When Abraham wasn’t getting to the quarterback early in the season, he called his sister and vented. It was frustrating. She tried to calm him down, but Abraham made it clear why he was in Arizona: “They pay me for a reason.”
Since that conversation, he’s been earning his money, playing better than men 10 years his junior.
“I’m surprised I can do this. I’m for real,” he said. “I played pretty much the whole game last game.
“I guess ‘cause when I think about my age … I’m still doing it. I’m not doing it a level. I’m doing it at a high level. It’s totally different. I’m just glad I got some sacks to show that I still can. If I ain’t got no sacks I was getting pissed off.”
Neither Ryan nor Atlanta coach Mike Smith were surprised by what they’ve seen out of Abraham as of late. Ryan said it’ll be different seeing him across the line when the plays count. And it won’t be easy, either.
Abraham will be sure of that.
He’s not out to prove anything to the Falcons, for whom he had 68.5 sacks. He’s moved on. He’s married to a new team now and he’s proving that, regardless of relationship, he’s still the same old John Abraham.
“I think I proved myself in my career,” he said. “I’m 14 years [in] and still playing. I don’t think I got to prove nothing to them. They saw seven years of what I got. I’m trying to prove to y’all I still can do something.
“I’m trying to prove to Arizona I got something. I’m mad it took so long to show off. I wanted the first game, I wanted to have like three or four sacks and [the Cardinals be like] ‘Yay, John’s here.’ Hopefully, it’ll ride out for the rest of the season.”