SUWANEE, Ga. -- Chuck Smith's voice, normally so commanding, remained tempered Thursday as the Falcons continued their preparations for Sunday's game against Jacksonville.
The eighth-year player was selected as the NFC Defensive Player of the Week, yet his attention remained divided between two worlds. His brother, Jeff, is in an Athens, Ga., hospital following surgery on a brain tumor.
Throughout his lifetime, football and family had been a perfect mix. Now each seem to soothe the pain and frustration of the other.
"My brother's doing as well as possible, I guess," Smith said. "It's been tough. He's got a long way to go."
So do the Falcons.
Smith harnessed all his concern and anger into his best performance of the season Sunday in a 27-20 victory over Carolina. Smith had six tackles, three quarterback sacks, two quarterback pressures and he forced a fumble.
The rest of the Atlanta defense seemed to rally around Smith, as the Falcons forced five turnovers.
"That's the way it's supposed to be every week," said defensive tackle Shane Dronett. "It was like last year."
At 2-6, Atlanta still is grasping for anything that reminds it of last year's success. The team has suffered a myriad of injuries, including the loss of All-Pro running back Jamal Anderson for the season with a knee injury and a slow start by Smith, who suffered a toe injury during training camp.
"I can't control the time frame of when it was going to start feeling better," Smith said. "It's not 100 percent. It's probably 90. We're doing the things that we can control, and that's playing hard."
Several years ago, former Atlanta cornerback Deion Sanders joked about Smith and his problem with turf toe. At last year's Super Bowl, Sanders, who now plays at Dallas, playfully apologized after missing several games with the same injury.
"Imagine if you have no control over your toe," Smith said. "When you step on something, it burns and swells up. When it first happened, I tried to keep going and the swelling never went away.
"Your big toe is important. Without a big toe, you don't have any balance. You can't push off. You can't dig in and push off like you need. It probably would have been smarter for me earlier in the year to sit out and rest."
As Smith gets better, so does the rest of the Atlanta defense.
"I think we saw an improvement about three games ago," defensive line coach Bill Kolar said. "We've been working our way to this point. Now the goal is to keep it at this level."
Smith, who will be a free agent at the end of the season, has been the NFC Defensive Player of the Week three times in his career, including last year when he led the Falcons to a 41-10 win at New England with 2 1/2 sacks and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
This week's award was dedicated to his brother.