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John DeShazier: Falcons game different for Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton this year

Inside linebacker is another year removed from his former team

The novelty hasn't totally worn off for inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, though he certainly expects it to lessen with time.

But still he understands, and feels, what it means to be a second-year Saint after having been a four-year Falcon, having seen the rivalry from each perspective, a rivalry that'll add another chapter Sunday when the teams open the regular season in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

"Last year was the first year," Lofton said. "I think as the years go along that's going to start to fade. I guess that hate they have for me leaving and coming here, hopefully that's going to go away. But for me, going into this game is different."

Not so different that it'll affect Lofton's performance, mind you.

He totaled 22 tackles and two passes defensed in two games against Atlanta last year, part of a 157-tackle season, his fourth consecutive year with at least 142 stops.

But it was reasonable that last season, he experienced a bit of an odd feeling when he lined up against the Falcons for the first time.

The select teammates he hadn't been allowed to touch while wearing a Falcons helmet were fair game, to be pummeled between the whistles, once his helmet bore the fleur-de-lis.

!But now, more and more it becomes about Atlanta being an opponent that stands in the way of the Saints reaching their goals, than about the names on the backs of the jerseys. And about the Falcons being New Orleans' season-opening opponent this season, than about whether it may look odd to see his former team entering the field from the place he once entered it from.

And about the 6-foot, 241-pound Lofton, again, assuming a leadership role on the Saints' defense.

Like last season, New Orleans will enter the regular season minus linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who has been the defensive voice since joining the team in 2008. Like last season, Lofton, who never has missed a game in his NFL career, was a natural to fill the void with his own voice.

"He's now the signal-caller, he's now the guy who's playing Mike, he played it a year ago," Coach Sean Payton said. "He's physical, he's a smart player, he brings that leadership to the room.

"(He's) a guy with experience and a guy that's a very good tackler. He's well-built so in that 3-4 front, you're playing someone over the guard that's uncovered, often times he's taking on a bigger lineman than maybe in a 4-3 scheme. He's handled that transition very well."

Said Lofton: "I've been doing it for a while. When you have that helmet communicator, you've got to be calm, patient and know that sometimes, things aren't going to go well and you've got to be that solid rock for the guys. That's something I'm used to being. I've got to keep improving on doing that.

 "I pride myself in being an inside linebacker that's been physical. So any time there's a guard, a tackle or whoever, I've got to go in and knock him back so I can get to the running back and finish. That's something I pride myself in."

Apparently, it's working.

Lofton had 10 games of at least nine tackles last season, 14 with a least eight. His 10 passes defensed were a career high and while the defense allowed a record-setting total of yards (7,042), Lofton showed he was worth the investment.

Specifically, he did what he always has done. And there was nothing novel about that.

Regardless of where Lofton has played, who he has played for, who he has played alongside and which tunnel he has used, Lofton has led and produced. Nothing less is expected Sunday, too.

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