Inside or outside, up or down, Upshaw’s down with Falcons’ plans

Derrick Shelby, left, knocks the ball away from Falcons teammate Courtney Upshaw during a drill at a practice Monday, May 23, 2016, in Flowery Branch. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Derrick Shelby, left, knocks the ball away from Falcons teammate Courtney Upshaw during a drill at a practice Monday, May 23, 2016, in Flowery Branch. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

A casual NFL fan with no idea of how the Falcons were doing might see Courtney Upshaw playing defensive end, and even at tackle, and think that the team must be in trouble if it’s come to playing a linebacker in the trenches.

That evaluation would be a mistake.

The five-year veteran’s versatility is an example of how the Falcons (13-5) have counted upon multi-taskers to reach their second Super Bowl, Feb. 5 against the Patriots (16-2).

Nobody has superstars at every position.

“It may not be his best position, but doing it for the team and stepping up and saying, ‘OK, I’ll do it,’ is really good, just like having a guy like Ben Garland, who can play nose tackle for us as the backup center,” defensive line coach Bryan Cox said.

“Numerous other guys on this team help out in multiple positions, and good teams, successful teams, cross-train at multiple positions.”

As a senior at Alabama in 2011, Upshaw was a finalist for the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, and a menace for the Crimson Tide in winning a second national title. He had 52 tackles that season, a team-high 9.5 sacks and 18 tackles for lost yardage.

That continued after the Ravens drafted him in the second round, 35th overall, in 2012, when he led all Baltimore rookies with 55 tackles, and added 1.5 sacks, two pass breakups, two rumble recoveries and five special-teams tackles. Baltimore won the Super Bowl that season.

When he became a free agent following last season, and the Falcons approached him, Upshaw was on board with coach Dan Quinn’s idea that he transition to down lineman. At 6-feet-2, 272 pounds, he is as big or bigger than most defensive ends.

“I’m the type of guy I’ll just do whatever is asked of me, and I just honestly want to be on the field, out there playing football,” he said. “I really didn’t have an issue with it.”

Quinn, Cox and the Falcons staff didn’t make Upshaw a defensive lineman after he signed with the team in March; that was the plan when the Falcons recruited the native of Eufala, Ala., which is about a two-hour drive from Atlanta.

“When we approached Court … it was to play defensive line, to play D-end and not as much outside linebacker,” Quinn said. “I said, ‘This is something I see in your game. You pass rushed before.’ In nickel he did that at Alabama, and he did it at Baltimore as well … he’s a very willing guy.”

Playing in 13 regular-season games for the Falcons, including five starts at tackle, yes tackle, Upshaw rang up 23 tackles and a sack with a pass breakup, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

“The biggest shift was could he have the versatility to play defensive tackle? And because of his strength he was able to,” Quinn said. “Now, we’re able to slide him back out to defensive end because of the injury to (Adrian) Clayborn.”

It’s not the same inside, yet Upshaw’s been in the trenches. The Ravens put him there occasionally.

“In Baltimore, I did a little bit of it, but mainly I was dropping into coverage on third downs,” he recalled. “I give a lot of credit to the guys who do it on an every-down basis.”

That would be a guy such as 12-year veteran defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux.

“He’s an athlete; he can play anywhere, drop back in coverage, and also rush the passer,” Babineaux said. “Courtney’s still got that quick-twitch most guards don’t get to see from D-tackles. It’s an advantage for him.”

Cox relishes Upshaw’s ability to multi-task.

“He was always a big-bodied guy who was a good athlete when playing outside (linebacker), so if you’re athletic enough to play out there and you’re big enough to play inside, why not try him?” he said.

“It gives you a guy who can be a three-hole player. He can … (also) help on special teams.”

In his heart of hearts, Upshaw looks to his past, but he’s treasuring the present.

“I love to call myself a linebacker, but I really don’t too much care about the title,” he said. “Like I said, I just want to be on the field.”

In Other News