New Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, center, has one primary job during preseason camp: make the Falcons better on third-down stops --- something the team struggled mightily with last year.
FLOWERY BRANCH — Atlanta coach Mike Smith is looking for new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to help the Falcons increase their third-down stops.
In a 25-year NFL head coaching career that has included stops as a defensive coordinator with the Giants, Redskins, Jets, Ravens, Broncos and Dolphins, Nolan has built a reputation for scheming to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks — and receivers — by making them have to guess.
Some of the Falcons’ defensive statistics were good last season. They ranked No. 6 in the league against the run while allowing 97 rushing yards per game, but getting off the field was a big problem at times. Atlanta allowed a third-down conversion rate of 44.1 percent, 29th in the NFL.
Nolan’s defense in Miami was No. 7 on third downs (33.8 percent allowed), arguably with weaker personnel than the Falcons have. Atlanta also was No. 30 in the NFL in third-down sack rate (6.02 percent, with 10 third-down sacks) while Miami was No. 2 (12.2 percent, with 21).
“Mike lives for third down,” Smith said. “He’s been one of the best third-down coaches in the 14 years that he’s been a coordinator. I think you’re going to see multiplicity in our defense. There will be some things that will run through the defense that we’ve done in the past, but there’s going to be more multiplicity in what we do.”
Before former Falcons defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder left to take the same job at Auburn after last season, Atlanta fans frequently lit up sports talk radio switchboards to complain that the team too often played it simple on that side of the ball.
Nolan, in fact, has seen remnants of that through the first three days of training camp. That’s why he and his staff are asking defensive backs to get up in the faces of receivers, so the coaches can see who can and cannot play aggressively.
Once they get a feel for that, some DBs — newcomer Asante Samuel, for example — are likely to be given the option of picking their own method of defense. The more they show in practice, the more often they will be allowed to choose, like a speedy baserunner who gets the green light to steal on his own.
“That’s exactly right,” Nolan said. “We play off, or press, press where they get their hands on them, and press where we bail. We call those, ‘tools.’ A player has different tools that he can use so that he doesn’t just have one way of doing it. (A defensive back) can be a little more offensive in what he does … so that receivers can’t just come out and say, ‘I know what you’re doing.’
“That’s why we’re telling them to get up so much because they’ve been used to being off so much that we want to get them up and see what they can do. If we have a couple tools and execute them properly, it puts more strain on the offensive players.”
Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson is pleased with the prospect of freedom.
“It allows us to be more aggressive,” he said. “And I get to go inside and play nickel, where I’m able to roam a little bit and make some tackles. It’s a very versatile defense . . . not showing your blitzes (ahead of the snap), just showing a bunch of different things. It’s kind of a cat-and-mouse game.”
Where the Falcons’ blitzes were at times easy to pick up, they are less likely to be that way under Nolan.
He’s been a frequent practitioner of the 3-4 alignment in the past, but with so much personnel back from last year’s 4-3 scheme (Samuel is the only prominent newcomer, although the Falcons have to find a new middle linebacker after Curtis Lofton joined the Saints as a free agent), Nolan said he will blend both alignments into game plans to help prevent the Falcons from being predictable.
Atlanta will overload the line of scrimmage at times, and move defenders around before the snap.
The Dolphins had 41 sacks last year to the Falcons’ 33, and linemen had 21 1/2 of them. Look for more distribution this year.
“We just got to get used to the new system to where we can go out and not think about things,” said defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. “I think the sky’s the limit for this D-line.”
The same goes for linebackers, safeties, and even cornerbacks. Everybody will be a candidate to get a sack for the Falcons.
Nolan’s not ready to predict who’ll get them, or how often he’ll use the 4-3 vs. the 3-4, and he’s not sure who’ll end up at middle linebacker between emerging second-year man Akeem Dent and recently re-signed Mike Peterson. Yet he seems to have a good feeling about the big picture.
“It’s too early to know what we’ll use because some of the stuff we’re learning and we’re trying to learn what tools the players have, but there is less transition here than in some places,” he said. “There are a lot of guys who have been here. Asante is new and then you have the rookies. Outside of that, it’s pretty much the same group. Maybe half this is stuff they did, and maybe half is new. There’s less learning for the players who were here.”
NOTES: The Falcons released guard Vince Manuwai, who was signed as a free agent in March after sitting out last season. He was originally drafted by Jacksonville in the third round in 2003, and started 105 games for the Jaguars through 2010. … Defensive tackle Corey Peters, who suffered an undisclosed injury prior to the start of training camp, remains sidelined. … The play of the day Saturday came when quarterback Matt Ryan completed a long pass down the right sideline to Julio Jones, who leaped high above cornerback Brent Grimes to make the catch.