Falcons Show Commitment To 3-4 Defense In Pass-Happy League
The Atlanta Falcons defensive numbers would be quite fitting if placed on the tombstone of their 2013 season - 27th in the NFL in points allowed, 31st in rushing yards allowed, 29th in the total sacks and dead last in percentage of third down conversions allowed.
Last season, Atlanta's defense showed that it was in need of some serious changes for 2014. Simply adding a few draft picks or signing a free agent would not be enough to alter the direction in which the defensive unit was headed. Instead, the front seven was given a complete makeover and a philosophical change is underway for the Falcons. The building blocks for a base 3-4 are now in town.
The Falcons had spent the 2014 offseason ducking the question of whether or not the team intended to move to a 3-4 base defense. The inquiry is one that was treated by team officials as being unimportant, and the term “multiple” was constantly used to describe their plans. The response made sense, as most NFL teams now use variations of 3-4 and 4-3 looks in order to create an element of confusion for the opposing offense. But the problem for Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was that his defensive unit lacked the types of athletes needed to be effective when the team employed the 3-4.
That has changed this offseason, as the Falcons have made it a point of emphasis to get bigger upfront defensively. Veteran defensive linemen Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson were signed in free agency to add experienced 3-4 players, along with the selection of versatile defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hagemen in the second round of the NFL Draft. The results remain to be seen, but Atlanta's new front definitely passes the eyeball test. The 2013 Falcons averaged 280 pounds along the defensive line, while the 2014 version will tip the scales at 310 pounds on average.
In the pass-happy NFL, the base defense is predominantly a two-down situation. Most NFL teams are lining up in their nickel and dime defenses nearly 60 percent of the time. Outside linebackers who can put their hand on the ground and get after the quarterback are as good as gold. This is where the Falcons are still a work in progress.
3-4 playoff teams around the league all have weapons who can rush from the edge. Clay Matthews, Aldon Smith, Robert Mathis, Cameron Jordan, Terrell Suggs and Tamba Hali are all outside linebackers who are third down game wreckers that offenses must scheme for. The Falcons simply lack that type of player.
The potential outside linebackers who will be asked to rush the passer for Atlanta in 2014 include Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Massaquoi, Stansly Maponga and Cliff Matthews. That group combined to total 11.5 sacks in 2013. Massaquoi would be the likeliest to take the next step in his third year with the team.
The Falcons defense is in transition. The foundations of size and toughness have been poured this offseason, but the ability for the team to develop and acquire additional pass rushers will determine how quickly Atlanta returns to a championship-contending level.