ATLANTA --In a last-second loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome, former Shaw High star and current Oakland Raiders linebacker Philip Wheeler proved one thing:
The future looks bright.
Maybe not as bright for his Raiders, who have slipped to 1-4 this season. But in a game where he was pitted against one of the league's best offenses and, more specifically, against a future Hall of Fame tight end in Tony Gonzalez, Wheeler showed the enormous strides he has made since joining the league with the Indianapolis Colts five years ago.
Wheeler, who had several friends and family members in attendance, led all defenders with 10 tackles, bringing his season total to 44 and putting him on pace to top his career high of 84 by the team's 10th game.
He mixed zone and man coverage when he wasn't applying pressure to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (he finished with two hits on the quarterback). He often marked Gonzalez, one of Ryan's go-to targets and held him to four receptions for 42 yards.
Overall, he helped lead a defense that forced three interceptions and essentially held the Falcons to 16 points (one score came off of an interception return).
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound linebacker had a nose for the ball, tracking down ball carriers on several occasions and stopping the Atlanta ground attack cold. The Falcons rushed 15 times for just 45 yards in the game.
It's a big leap for a player that was graded only as a two-star prospect by Scout.com when he was recruited to play at Georgia Tech out of Shaw.
Perhaps the biggest evidence of Wheeler's growth into a bona fide leader on a professional defense are the words he offered after the game, however. Asked about his performance and the strides he has made, Wheeler deflected praise for himself, electing instead to gauge his success by the success of his defense as a whole.
"I'm just trying to focus more on everything," he said. "I'm playing different positions. I'm playing Mike, I'm playing Will, I'm playing Sam. But it's not really about me. It's about the team right here."
Wheeler stressed that his progress and the progress of his defensive unit are ongoing, despite success against the Falcons.
"We played well, but each time, we could do a little bit better," he said. "We feel like we can play with anybody, and we showed it. But we still didn't come up with the win, so we've still got work to do."
His personal success hasn't translated to success in the standings for Oakland, but it certainly helps. Despite his modest approach, there can be no doubt that, as he continues to develop into a reliable player, the Raiders have a better chance at success with him.
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571. Follow David on Twitter@leprepsports.