Falcons finding right blend on defense

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Take just about any team that was in the playoffs last season and remove five starters from the defense. In theory, that team's probably not going back to the playoffs.

Now, take the Atlanta Falcons.

They got rid of almost half their defensive starters and expect to be better on defense. Wishful thinking? Not really.

Think about all the wonderful things that went right for the Falcons in a stunning 11-5 season. The defense wasn't really one of them. This fact kind of got lost in the hysteria of quarterback Matt Ryan having a great rookie season and Michael Turner running wild.

The simple reality is that Atlanta's defense wasn't very good. The Falcons ranked 25th in rush defense, allowing 2,046 yards on the ground. Against the pass, the Falcons allowed 3,526 yards. That's only 21 yards less than New Orleans allowed and the Saints were widely considered one of the league's worst defenses.

Sure, Atlanta's defense played well enough to help the Falcons win 11 games, but it was done with smoke, mirrors, John Abraham and a whole lot of luck.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith were painfully aware the defense wasn't going to get any better by standing still and that's why they didn't. Linebacker Keith Brooking, defensive tackle Grady Jackson, cornerback Domonique Foxworth and linebacker Michael Boley were allowed to walk in free agency and safety Lawyer Milloy was released.

The truth is Foxworth was the only one of the bunch the Falcons wanted to keep, but only if they could do it at a reasonable price and that didn't happen. Brooking, Jackson and Milloy were great players -- a few years ago. But last season, they were old guys and liabilities. Boley fell out of favor with the coaching staff and wasn't even starting at the end of last year.

The names of the guys who are going to replace those five aren't going to excite anyone, but maybe they should. Atlanta's defense is going to be better in the long run because of the housecleaning. But it also might be better right away.

"I came into the meeting (on the first day of last week's minicamp) and I saw Abe and a couple old guys," safety Erik Coleman said. "But for the most part, it was first- and second-year guys. I think it's a good thing. We've got a lot of youth on our team and a lot of guys that are hungry to show they can play."

We won't know for sure if all the young guys can play for a few more months. But they might have a better chance than last year's defense. They at least fit the profile.

When Smith and Dimitroff came in last year, they focused most of their efforts on offense, signing Turner to a big free-agent contract and using the third overall draft pick on Ryan. Smith, who came with a defensive background, didn't truly have the kind of players he wanted on defense, so he had to make do.

But that's no longer an issue. Atlanta's offseason was all about defense and players who fit Smith's scheme. The Falcons are younger and the upgraded speed of the defense was obvious in minicamp.

They used their first-round pick on defensive tackle Peria Jerry and their second-round choice on safety William Moore. They're the likely replacements for Jackson and Milloy. They firmly believe that third-year pro Stephen Nicholas is ready to blossom and take over Boley's old spot on the strong side. They're not sure exactly who will start in Foxworth's spot, but they're going to throw Brent Grimes, Von Hutchins, Chevis Jackson and Chris Owens out there and see who rises up.

The Falcons didn't necessarily get younger at weakside linebacker where free-agent Mike Peterson is only a year younger than Brooking. But Peterson spent much of his career under Smith in Jacksonville and he wouldn't have been brought in if he didn't fit the system.

The one potential downside to the yout
h movement is that the Falcons lost a lot of experience and leadership in Brooking, Milloy and Jackson and nobody is denying that's a concern.

Smith doesn't believe in randomly anointing leaders and he's given a lot of thought to where his defensive leadership will come from.

"When you're a good player and you have success on the field, it leads to leadership," Smith said. "They become leaders."

At the moment, the Falcons don't have as many defensive leaders as a year ago. But Smith thinks that will change quickly.

Abraham's already a leader. Coleman was close to being one last year and should have room to spread his wings with Milloy gone. Peterson's a natural leader and already is getting comfortable with his new team. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was thrust into a leadership role as a rookie by the nature of his position and Smith expects his development in that role will accelerate this year.

"Instead of having one or two leaders, you've got to have eight or nine leaders throughout the entire team," Smith said. "There has to be a balance there."

Balance really is what the Falcons are aiming for on defense. They've got veterans in Abraham, Coleman and Peterson, young guys in the rookies and second-year players and some guys in between like defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and cornerback Chris Houston.

"We've got enough veteran leadership that can work out with the younger players to be a great blend," defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. "With young players, it's always a process. Right now, it's crucial that we work hard to allow them to get comfortable so they can attach themselves to the leadership and let it shine through."