Scheme aside, Falcons D must improve

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
12:45
PM ET
It's not Mike Smith's style to just come out and reveal the plans he has for his Atlanta Falcons.

That explains why the head coach kept it neutral when discussing the defensive game plan going into the 2014 season.

"I think we're going to be what we've been much like in the last couple of years: very multiple," Smith said this week at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando. "When you start talking about 3-4, 4-3, they're very similar in principles. You line up on a 4-3 in a base down, you slide your tackle in and under and over defense. You line up in a 3-4 and slide your tackle over you're in an over defense. You slide him under, you're in an under defense.

[+] EnlargeAtlanta's Mike Nolan
AP Photo/David GoldmanMike Nolan's defense is being build to feature more 3-4 looks.
"We're going to play with 11 players on the field and we're going to be very multiple. Mike Nolan has got a background -- probably half and half -- 50 percent of the time he's been based out of a 3-4 and based out of a 4-3. The thing that I think people don't realize is that the game has become substitutional defense. About 65 to 75 percent of large snaps have been in sub defense where you're playing with five defensive backs. There are more snaps with five defensive backs than four. That nickelback is more of a starter than your fourth linebacker or your third linebacker. The multiplicity and the complexity of the game have changed. You very rarely see the same formations offensively."

True, the Falcons have had elements of a 3-4 setup scattered through the course of the past few years. It was the influence defensive coordinator Mike Nolan brought with him when he left the Miami Dolphins following the 2011 season. But even Nolan admitted after arriving that the Falcons were best suited for a 4-3 look, based on the personnel he inherited.

Now things have changed drastically, which is why Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff recently admitted during a radio interview that the team would have more of a 3-4-based presence this coming season. Owner Arthur Blank made the same observation at this week's owners meetings as he reflected on the free-agent pick-ups.

"Well, if you talk to Mike Nolan, our defensive coordinator, he wouldn't answer the question," Blank said about the 3-4, "but I'm not sure if I can, but it appears to me that we're moving towards a 3-4 based on the players that we've picked up."

Nose tackle Paul Soliai left Miami for Atlanta, in part because the coaching staff convinced him a 3-4 setup would be more a part of the game plan. The Falcons also added Tyson Jackson, a defensive end best suited for a 3-4.

Several Falcons were told before free agency about the shift to a 3-4-based scheme. It's been a discussion that has carried on inside the team facility when players drop in for workouts.

"I've never been in a 3-4 defense," safety William Moore said. "With the players that we got [in free agency], I think we're capable of running it. You want to use the players to their strengths. But at the same time, you want to use the coach to his strength, too. That's what Nolan does.

"Nolan has been successful with doing that (3-4). And I'm sure, with the players that we've got and are getting, we'll be all right."

No matter how the Falcons align, they have to improve drastically on defense. Last season, they finished 27th in total defense, 31st in rushing defense, and dead last in third-down defense. The Falcons generated just 32 sacks, which ranked tied for 29th in the league.

Despite the additions of Soliai, Jackson and defensive back Javier Arenas, the Falcons have some holes to fill on defense. They need a pass-rusher and a safety to pair with Moore. Upgrading those final elements could lead to a new, improved defense in '14.

Vaughn McClure

ESPN Atlanta Falcons reporter

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