Keith Brooking has taken just 28 snaps this preseason, but he accomplished most of the work he needed in the first two weeks of training camp. Though he might need a series or two in the season opener against Philadelphia before his mind and body are comfortable with game speed, Brooking believes defensive coordinator Ed Donatell wants to use him more freely to blitz and harass the quarterback.
"I've never been in a position where I rush the passer," Brooking said. "I got in a little of that last year. I feel very comfortable in that. I believe I'll do very well given the opportunity. I'm looking forward to coming off the edge and rushing the passer, getting out in space. I won't disappoint them. Give me the opportunity, and I'll get there."
Coach Jim Mora loves that Brooking is highly motivated to make the Atlanta defense emerge from the long shadow of star quarterback Michael Vick.
"He wants people to think about a great defense when the Falcons come up in a conversation," Mora said. "I think that's great. That's what everyone wants, including Mike Vick."
Despite earning four straight trips to Hawaii, Brooking has yet to have the kind of breakout season that brought Ray Lewis and Derrick Brooks league-wide recognition.
Brooking, a first-round draft pick in 1998, knows this season could be his best opportunity. He is in his prime as a playmaker, but because the Falcons now have a strong middle linebacker in Ed Hartwell to complement a stout line that includes ends Patrick Kerney and Brady Smith and tackles Rod Coleman and Chad Lavalais.
"Preseason for me is working on my fundamentals. I pretty much know the defense," Brooking said. "I'm very comfortable in the system. But working on my fundamentals, my technique, the way I attack blocks, the way I'm getting off blocks, my footwork, my steps, my reads, my man coverage. It's all coming together at just the right time."
The personnel at linebacker looks impressive enough that it might withstand losing third-round draft pick Jordan Beck to a season-ending foot injury last week.
Rookie Michael Boley, a fifth-round pick, has done everything well in rushing the passer, beating blocks and tackling in open space. He plays behind Brooking, who is poised for a great season now that Hartwell has replaced Chris Draft and made the defense more stout inside.
As important as Hartwell is to Brooking, perhaps no player means more to the corps of linebackers than Ike Reese. He continues to battle Demorrio Williams for the strongside job, but Reese can fill in at all three positions, and he's helped add swagger to a unit was lacking in that category.
Beck is as good as advertised, but landing on injured reserve will give him no chance to get better. His injury opens up an instant opportunity for Antoine Cash to become the No. 5 linebacker, which would guarantee him a spot on the final 53-man roster.