FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — John Abraham usually doesn’t mind publicly critiquing his teammates on the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive line.
Abraham made an exception last year. While Ray Edwards battled injuries during their first season as teammates, Abraham kept quiet.
Edwards is healthy and Abraham is talking.
“I think he was ready last year, but a lot of times your physical being can slow you down,” Abraham said Monday. “I think mentally he is prepared and everyone else is mentally prepared to have a good year.”
Now that Edwards is no longer bothered by a stiff knee, he and Abraham believe they can become one of the NFL’s most feared pair of defensive ends.
That was their plan last year after the NFL lockout ended and Atlanta signed Edwards to a five-year, free-agent contract with $11 million guaranteed.
Unfortunately for Edwards, arthroscopic knee surgery hindered his burst from the line of scrimmage, and opponents essentially needed just one blocker to keep him away from the quarterback.
But with the season opener at Kansas City 13 days away, Edwards has no health concerns. If he and Abraham stay healthy, Edwards sees no reason why the Falcons can’t boast their first pair of bookend pass rushers since Patrick Kerney and Brady Smith helped Atlanta advance to the NFC title game in 2004.
“Absolutely,” Edwards said. “We’re always trying to outdo each other and outwork each other because at the end it’s going to show on the game-day tape. That’s our plan with the whole front four – who can do what and who can do their job the best.”
Falcons coach Mike Smith said Edwards endured more pain than people knew about.
“It was a tough year for Ray last year in terms of injuries,” Smith said. “Some of them not well publicized, but he fought through a lot. He showed a lot of resiliency.”
With the schemes designed by new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons plan to use a variety of pressures and blitz packages to keep opponents guessing.
Abraham is excited. He thought Atlanta was too predictable under former coordinator Brian VanGorder.
“I don’t think I’ll be zeroed in on as much this year,” Abraham said. “They’re going to have to play football and they’re going to have to look for more than just me.”
After earning his fourth Pro Bowl invitation in 2010, Abraham struggled for long stretches of last season. He had two sacks in the opening loss at Chicago and 3.5 in a Week 15 home blowout victory over Jacksonville.
Abraham managed just four sacks in 13 other games. He also missed a home loss to Green Bay with a hip injury.
When the season ended, Abraham filed for free agency. He talked with Tennessee and Denver before deciding to return to the Falcons for a three-year contract worth $16.72 million.
Though he ranks second on the franchise list with 58.5 career sacks, Abraham believes his seven-year run with Atlanta has been spotty because the Falcons have yet to win a playoff game since he arrived in a trade with the New York Jets in 2006.
“It will be topped off the best if we go where I want to go,” the 34-year-old Abraham said. “That was my main reason for staying, trying to do something good. The best option for me was to stay here. If something real good happened, I would feel kind of bad about it.”
Edwards still feels partly responsible that Atlanta ranked just 25th in sacks per passing attempt last year. Despite starting all 16 games, he finished with 3.5 sacks, his lowest total since his rookie season of 2006 with Minnesota.
Edwards, 27, had 16.5 sacks in 30 games for the Vikings in 2009-10.
“It was very frustrating not being able to perform at the top of my abilities,” Edwards said. “I couldn’t go out there and do my job as well as I know I can, and I was putting a lot of pressure on myself with the new contract and things of that nature. Now I’m just going back to having fun and being me.”