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Falcons not shifting to 3-4 defense

Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith said that despite rumors, his team is not switching to a 3-4 defense. (Reuters)

Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith said that despite rumors, his team is not switching to a 3-4 defense. (Reuters)

Falcons coach Mike Smith wanted to clear the air.

While scouting players for free agency and the draft, and reviewing training and practice plans, he heard all of the radio and blogosphere chatter about the Falcons switching to a 3-4 defense.

He squelched those rumors in a phone interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from the NFL owner’s meeting held recently in Orlando, Fla.

“I think it’s a non-question,” said Smith, who normally is guarded when talking strategy. “We are going to do what we’ve done in the past.”

Now, some tweaks are in order.

“We changed what we are calling the guys, but we are doing what we’ve done in the past,” Smith said. “We are going to be very multiple.”

The signing of defensive tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson fueled the speculation. Soliai, at 340 pounds, can play nose tackle in the 3-4. But he also can be used as a defensive tackle in the 4-3, such as how Smith used Grady Jackson (340) in 2008 and Tony Siragusa (370) and Sam Adams (350) in his Baltimore days.

Tyson Jackson played end in Kansas City’s 3-4, but could be used as an edge-setter in the 4-3 to stop outside runs. In the Falcons’ rotational system, he could be replaced in obvious passing situations by Osi Umenyiora, who was moved to a designated pass-rusher role late last season.

“We are going to have a lot of multiplicity in our defense,” Smith said. “That’s what (defensive coordinator) Mike (Nolan) and his staff have done for two years.”

Smith spent nine seasons as an assistant in the NFL on defense. He coached the defensive line (1999-2001) and linebackers in Baltimore (2002) before serving as Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator from 2003-07.

He’s seen the changes in offenses around the league and how the defenses are trying to catch up.

“When you really look at defensive football, it’s changed,” Smith said. “It’s changed a lot over the last 10 years when you start talking about what your base defense is; your base defense is your sub-package.”

The rise of offenses using three-, four- and five-wide receiver sets with running quarterbacks dictated new approaches on defense. The advent of the dynamic pass-catching tight end — Vernon Davis, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham — also has been a factor.

“You play 65 percent or more in five (defensive back) sets,” Smith said. “So, when you start talking about four linebackers, three linebackers, or two linebackers, there are more times that you’re going to have two linebackers in a ballgame than you’re going to have three or four. You’re going to have five (defensive backs) because that’s just the way offenses present right now.”

The Falcons’ defense was porous last season. The unit didn’t finish in the top half of the league in any key defensive statistic. It ranked 27th in yards allowed per game, 29th in yards rushing, 21st in yards passing, 27th in points per game, 32nd on third-down percentage and 25th in sacks per pass attempt, according to Game Statistics Information System.

Brian VanGorder was the team’s defensive coordinator for the first four seasons under Smith, and the Falcons were considered exclusively a 4-3 team. Nolan took over in 2012, and in a game against Philadelphia and dangerous running back LeSean McCoy, he used a 3-4 defense in running situations.

Nolan moved Corey Peters to nose tackle that day and used Peria Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux as ends. The 3-4 defense did a great job of befuddling Eagles quarterback Michael Vick and held McCoy to 45 yards rushing on 16 carries in a 30-17 victory.

Under Smith, the Falcons ranked best in yards per game in 2011, when they were 12th. They finished fifth in scoring defense in 2010 and 2012 and won the NFC South both seasons.

Overall, Smith’s defenses have struggled against the pass, on third downs and in amassing sacks. They have never finished in the top half of the 32-team league in yards passing per game. They finished in the top half in third-down percentage only in 2008 (13th) and have never ranked in the top half in sacks per pass attempt. They finished 17th in 2008.

So, there will be some changes to the defensive approach, but they won’t be schematically.

“Whether you call yourself a 4-3 or a 3-4 team, we’re multiple,” Smith said. “The concepts are every changing on the defensive side of the ball.”