- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 7, 2011

FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. (AP) - Heading into the opener Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons are drawing plenty of attention for that high-powered offense.

Their Super Bowl hopes, however, may rest on the defense.

With that in mind, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton knows he’ll have to fill essentially the same role that quarterback Matt Ryan plays on the offensive side.

The guy who calls signals and makes adjustments. The guy who motivates. The guy who doles out discipline when it’s needed.

“Being the Mike (football-speak for middle) linebacker means you’re the leader,” Lofton said Wednesday. “You’ve got to do everything right, on the field and off the field. If you see somebody doing something wrong, it’s your job to step in and correct them and tell them, ‘You’ve got to step up.’”

It wasn’t a role that came naturally to Lofton, especially when he arrived in the league as a second-round draft pick in 2008. He’s soft-spoken off the field, not exactly the sort of forceful personality who can impose his will on those around them.

But he tutored under two linebackers who’ve never been bashful about expressing what’s on their minds _ starting with Keith Brooking, and now Mike Peterson, who’s still on the team in a backup role, still around to remind Lofton that this is his defense now.

“You may not be born with it, but you’ve kind of got to adapt to it,” Peterson said. “A lot of that is getting those big guys to listen to you. That’s a respect thing. You do what you have to do, and you demand that respect. You’ve got to demand it. Sometimes they may grunt. But you’ve got to demand it being the Mike linebacker.”

Coach Mike Smith has tried to let Lofton ease into the role.

Curtis is a very humble man. He’s very even-keeled when you talk to him off the field, but he’s very competitive on the field,” Smith said. “You don’t anoint someone your leader _ they rise to the top. And Curtis has done that with his play.”

Except for a brief stint at outside linebacker early in his college career at Oklahoma, Lofton has always been in the middle of the defense. Like just everyone at that position, he’s tried to model his game after Baltimore’s Ray Lewis. But his favorite player is Washington’s London Fletcher, who’s only 5-foot-10 and has never missed a game heading into his 14th season.

“He’s an undersized guy who’s been playing in this league for many years,” Lofton marveled. “But he hasn’t slowed down any.”

Lofton started all but one game his rookie season, working mainly in the team’s base package, and he’s been an every-down player the last two years. He had a team-high 142 tackles in 2010, besides making an interception, forcing three fumbles and breaking up three passes.

His leadership style is also versatile.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a vocal guy or a lead-by-example guy,” Lofton said. “I’m a combination of both. When something needs to be said, I say it. Sometimes, it’s good to lead by example and just let the guys follow you that way.”

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