After missing six games last season and all of the offseason with injuries, Stephen Nicholas is back on the field and healthy during this year's training camp.
As the starting linebacker opposite Sean Weatherspoon in Atlanta's defense, Nicholas, entering his sixth season, should be a factor in Mike Nolan's newly-installed defense. A strong and versatile linebacker, Nicholas has been staying on the field in passing situations when the Falcons go to a nickel defense with three cornerbacks and no middle linebacker.
On Monday, Falcons head coach Mike Smith said he's been impressed with how prepared Nicholas has been in camp.
"I think Stephen is playing with a lot of confidence," Smith said. "He seems to be a bigger football player this year even though his body weight is the same. He looks bigger, he is playing stronger, he is playing very active, and with a lot of confidence."
In last week's preseason game against the Ravens, Nicholas contributed one tackle and one pass defensed. The linebacker showed off his versatility all evening. The pass defensed was in coverage on Ravens tight end Ed Dickson.
Nicholas also helped make a key stop of Ravens running back Ray Rice on second down. Nicholas found the gap in pursuit of Rice and slowed down the running back. He missed the tackle, but bought enough time on the play for Dunta Robinson to arrive to bring down Rice for no gain. His pass deflection came on the next play.
Those types of plays are why the Falcons are opting to keep Nicholas on the field during all three downs this season. Smith thinks Nicholas can thrive in such a role.
"I think he is continuing to get better," Smith said. "He is a guy that can play all three downs for us, and he can rush the passer. He has some unique skills, and I think they are starting show even more this training camp."