FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons coach Mike Smith and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan have a lot of big ideas for their defense in 2014.
They want a unit that is defined by the difficulty opponents will have in defining it. They’ve always been flexible with their defensive scheme but are looking to expand that philosophy even further.
Yet when they talk about their big plans for the 2014 defense it’s hard to shake the images from the defense’s debacle in 2013.
Last season the Falcons couldn’t tackle. They were gouged for long runs because they weren’t even in position to make tackles. Their pass rushers couldn’t consistently defeat their man and get to the quarterback
If the Falcons don’t improve on the fundamentals, then Smith and Nolan’s big vision for the defense will quickly become a mirage just as the team’s Super Bowl aspirations in 2013 evaporated during the 4-12 flop.
“All that other stuff sounds good,” Nolan said. “The scheme all sounds good but ultimately you have got to have players and you got to teach them how to play well. And after that, you can do a lot of other things.”
Nolan acknowledges that the Falcons aren’t yet ready for the “after that” phase. He said that’s in large part because they will field a relatively young defense again in 2014.
Last season injuries (and to some degree ineffective play by veterans) forced the Falcons to play several rookies in important roles on defense. As the season slipped away Smith gave young players even more playing time over veterans.
The Falcons still will rely on several young players in key roles on defense.
Among them are two second-year cornerbacks (Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford), a pair of second-year linebackers (Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu) and two hybrid pass rushers with relatively little experience (Jonathan Massaquoi and Stansly Maponga). At least three rookie draft picks are expected to play a lot: defensive end Ra’Shede Hageman, safety Dezmen Southward and outside linebacker Prince Shembo.
“We are still young,” Nolan said. “We had a lot of (rookies) play last year but one year doesn’t make you a full-fledged, going-to-the-Hall-of-Fame pro.”
Nolan said he’s optimistic he has the right parts to be the kind of “multiple” defense the Falcons want.
He said he’s not looking for versatility in the secondary because he’d prefer “to be set where the guys are really good at one position.” Nolan noted, for instance, that so-called lock-down cornerbacks are not very versatile but teams covet them because their specialized skill is so valuable.
“When you get to the front then the jack-of-all-trades becomes a little bit more viable because then you are attacking (pass) protections,” he said.
Based on their open practices so far, the Falcons will rely primarily on veteran Kroy Biermann and Massaquoi as their hybrid players. Maponga and Shembo also figure to play that role.
Nolan said the addition of bigger players along the defensive line should help. In free agency the Falcons added massive nose tackle Paul Soliai (340 pounds) and jumbo defensive end Tyson Jackson (296) before drafting Hageman (318).
“We should keep linemen off of the linebackers more often,” Nolan said. “We should do a better job on the run. For player reasons, we should do those things. We should be better disrupting the pocket because bigger people collapse the pocket.”
While re-shuffling parts for the Falcons, Nolan can draw on his experiences with the Giants and Ravens.
Nolan’s got his first coordinator job with the Giants in 1993. They set the franchise record for points allowed in a 16-game season (205) while using a “vanilla” defensive scheme, Nolan said.
“But we had really good players,” he said. “We were kind of like, ‘Go sic ‘em, boys.’”
Nolan had a similar experience with the Ravens in 2003: a defense with five Pro Bowl players didn’t need exotic schemes. The Ravens had to use more unproven players in 2004 but still were among the top defensive teams in the league.
They did it while relying more on the “multiple” approach, Nolan said.
“We were making stuff up half the time and they were really good at it,” Nolan said.
Nolan said that the Falcons at this point are more like the 2004 Ravens than those other two teams. During offseason camps the Falcons are stressing the fundmentals, such as tackling and individual pass-rushing techniques, with a build-up to fleshing out the scheme.
Smith has bristled at reporters’ attempts to call his base defense a 3-4 or 4-3 alignment and has repeatedly stressed that it’s “multiple.” He’s done so even as his players refer to the defense as a 3-4 and the Falcons make personnel decisions that fit that alignment.
But Smith’s point is that the defense, if it comes together as planned, will have no real base look.
“There are going to be 11 guys on the field when we play defense,” he said. “Where they are going to line up and how we are going to line up, that’s going to be very flexible and very fluid.”
Nolan and Smith’s plan is to re-define some defensive positions, or perhaps more to the point, not define them. Certain players won’t line up in the same position from week to week. Smith said some players may put two hands the ground before the snap, some may use one hand or perhaps all the players will stand.
A player’s attributes, more so than his position, can determine where and how he is used. At least that’s the plan.
“We’ve always been multiple,” Nolan said. “But the players dictate what we can do. We really won’t know that until we get to training camp.”