Nicholas makes plays in return to lineup

Seeing him on the 49ers' first offensive play Sunday made it look like it meant something to him, as the fifth-year linebacker met running back Frank Gore head-on near the line of scrimmage, stopped him cold and drove him backward.

Nicholas emerged from the ensuing pile with an enthusiastic fist punch to the air, punctuating his first start this season, in place of injured rookie Sean Weatherspoon.

"That's what I do; I'm going to bring the excitement," said Nicholas, who started 14 games last season. "I'm excited to be out here every play."

It worked for him Sunday as Nicholas collected a team-best 13 tackles in his return to the starting lineup, demonstrating the sort of depth the Falcons have at the linebacker position.

It also showed how active Nicholas can be at outside linebacker, where he posted 80 tackles in 2009. That was the fourth-most on the team, with fellow linebackers Mike Peterson and Curtis Lofton among those ahead of him.

Lofton, who was second on the team with nine tackles in Sunday's 16-14 win, said Nicholas kept his head up after losing his starting spot and stayed prepared to play.

"That just goes to Nick," Lofton said. "You've got to be ready at game time. Nick's been paying attention, studying his book, waiting for an opportunity to come out and show what he can do. He had a great game."

Turns out, the Falcons needed every bit of it to stay on top of the NFC South against a 49ers team that entered the game winless in its first three.

The close nature of the game and the injury to Weatherspoon required Nicholas to play the vast majority of San Francisco's 56 plays.

Having a player coming off the bench who has drawn plenty of starts and brings a veteran's mentality is a huge luxury for the Falcons.

"That's a great issue to have to deal with," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "When you've got guys that go down, the next man has to come and step up and do his job. From what I saw on the sideline, I thought that Stephen made some plays."

Nicholas was part of a group of linebackers that continues to do its part for this defense, particularly Nicholas and Lofton in this game.

It's a close group that has no intention of letting up when they have to turn to their bench to fill in for one of the normal starters.

"We're like a big family," Nicholas said. "We're like brothers. I've got brothers. But [with] these brothers, it's fun. We're one big family, right here."

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