As Dan Quinn mentioned at his introductory press conference (and many times since), the Falcons' plan on evolving into a uniquely fast and physical group. Another characteristic they've been is highlighting is versatility, and linebacker Nate Stupar, who's enjoying more responsibilities this year, has benefited from that emphasis.
"You know, when a guy's able to handle more than one role, we're certainly going to try and feature him," said Quinn. "Nate has been one for us in that way, for sure. He can play SAM back, behind the lines ... For us, anytime a guy has that kind of versatility, he adds such value to our team. Nate has certainly done that."
Pro Football Focus has given Stupar a plus-5.1 grade so far in 2015, tied for the best mark on Atlanta's D with Desmond Trufant. This stat is impressive in itself; the fact that he's done so well in just 64 of 239 defensive snaps shows how much he's taking advantage of the chances provided to him.
Stupar has been especially good against the run. At strongside linebacker he's been able to shed blocks and make key stops against opposing halfbacks, oftentimes at or near the line of scrimmage. Currently he sports the ninth-best rush defense grade among 4-3 outside linebackers on PFF.
"I feel like I've been working hard and staying on the grind and just been waiting for my opportunities," said Stupar, who closed out Sunday's victory with an 84-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown. "When an opportunity comes, you just have to take advantage of it. I just go out there, play my ball and let the plays come to me. Go out there and be me, have fun."
Fellow linebackers Justin Durant and Brooks Reed have suffered recent injuries, which have allowed Stupar to prove his worth during the regular season. Having assets like him, a No. 2 option who has the talent needed to thrive in Atlanta's scheme, is crucial to building a successful product.
"When your time is called, you have to be ready to go, and he (was ready)," said defensive coordinator Richard Smith. "We moved him in at SAM (linebacker) and he was able to play and spell there at that spot and he did an outstanding job."
Stupar has looked good on special teams, too, and leads the team with five kick/punt return tackles. That's where his value has lied in the past. Now, the 27-year-old is effective on defense, as well.
What exactly has allowed him to take that step?
"It's the competition," Stupar explained. "Coach Quinn does a really good job of getting us to compete. That makes everyone better. It puts people up to the next level. That's what's fun, getting better each and every day against each other."