FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - As the Atlanta Falcons began training camp in late July, rookie linebacker Michael Boley wanted a better understanding of his job as a backup to weakside starter Keith Brooking.
Boley asked his position coach, Chris Beake, for a playbook he could study each night. The fifth-round draft pick from Southern Mississippi knew he couldn't perform at a high level without knowing the roles of other linebackers.
That extra work has paid off, but not as Boley imagined. When the Falcons (6-2) host the Green Bay Packers (1-7) this week, Boley will make his fourth straight start at strongside linebacker.
"From training camp until now, it's been like a whole turnaround," Boley said Thursday. "It was a big change, but I just took it upon myself to keep learning and figure out what's going on."
In five preseason games, Boley believes he took no more than three snaps at strongside, but a season-ending injury in Week 5 to middle linebacker Ed Hartwell and the loss of rookie backup Jordan Beck, a third-round pick, before the season started caused personnel changes throughout the corps.
Brooking, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, moved from weakside to Hartwell's former spot in the middle. Demorrio Williams, who beat out Ike Reese to start on the strongside, went to the weakside. Reese remained the No. 4 linebacker who backs up all three positions.
The Atlanta coaching staff believed Boley was a better fit on the strongside. At 6-foot-3, he is three inches taller than Williams and has longer arms to create leverage more easily when beating blocks from bigger tight ends and tackles.
"You're looking for a long guy who can run well, smooth, and cover tight ends at that position," head coach Jim Mora said of the strongside position. "Demorrio is probably a natural (on the weakside) because he's explosive, quick, a sideline-to-sideline type of guy. He doesn't have the length like Boley to cover tight ends."
Boley, Williams and Brooking all endured some difficult moments as they started their first game in new roles. The Falcons held off New Orleans for a 34-31 win in San Antonio, but not before a Saints team minus Deuce McAllister rushed for 211 yards.
Brooking, who hadn't played the middle in a 4-3 since the 2001 season, tried too hard to help Boley and Williams. The result was too many blown assignments as the confused linebackers often didn't stay in their gaps. Overcompensating caused Brooking occasionally to lose sight of the bigger picture.
"The thing I love about our young guys is they come in and they don't know everything," Brooking said. "They don't know every defensive call. Just the little things as far as pre-snap and things like that - sometimes it doesn't all click immediately with those guys. And they make mistakes. But the thing is, they're so eager to learn and get to that next play. They come to work every day with that mentality, and I love that more than anything about them."
Including the five games he started at strongside, Williams has three sacks, one interception and two passes defended. He scored a touchdown on a 59-yard return of Boley's blocked field goal against the Saints. The Falcons have credited him with 68 tackles, two less than Brooking has in the team lead.
There were several times in last week's 17-10 victory at Miami that Boley and Williams acknowledged feeling somewhat overwhelmed against the Dolphins' powerful running back tandem of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.
"They've got a 1-2 punch," Williams said. "But the main thing is you've just got to keep doing your job because at any time they're bound to break."
Boley made another impressive play in his debut as he forced running back Antowain Smith to lose a fumble outside the right hashmarks. Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall returned the ball 66 yards for the score.
Saints tight end Ernie Conwell caught no passes, but Boley had a tougher task last week as he faced Miami's Randy McMichael, who caught three passes for 21 yards and often covered up Boley with blocks.
"It's tough," Boley said. "It's not like in college where you might go against average tight ends all the time, and it's not that hard to get off of them. Here, these guys are good at what they do."
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