Atlanta Falcons: Defense of the Future


May 12, 2012; Flowery Branch, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith (right) and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan talk during Falcons rookie camp at the Atlanta Falcons Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons are an offensive football team. There is no doubt about it. Between a franchise quarterback, a bell cow running back with great depth behind him, two top-shelf wide receivers, and a hall of fame tight end, the Falcons have it all on that side of the ball. There is no doubt in my mind that next year, the offense will, at the very least, be a force to be reckoned with for any defense. It should exceed the standards it set for itself last year, and all of this is great as a fan.

What makes me really get into this team, however, is its defense. To be completely honest, defense has always been my favorite aspect of football. The offense gets to score all those points, but the defense gets all the guts and glory. Well, the defense for the Falcons last year was completely new and completely fascinating.

In 2011, the Atlanta Falcons ran a fairly traditional 4-3 soft zone defense. It was the product of the collaboration between Mike Smith, and the Falcons previous defensive coordinator. It was the staple of most NFL teams for decades and it wasn’t a terrible look. It made the team fairly effective against the run, but as any fan of the time can attest, it was susceptible to the big play through the air. To be honest, it was becoming fairly predictable by the end of the old defensive coordinator, Brian Van Gorder’s, tenure. That defense will always work, but it is also becoming the NFL’s version of a not-yet-extinct dinosaur–maybe a “crocodile”. It was effective, but could be taken advantage of if put up against any opponent worth their salt. Now, exit VanGorder stage left, and enter Mike Nolan stage right.

Mike Nolan was and is widely considered a brilliant defensive mind. He is at least partially responsible for the incredible defense that the San Francisco 49ers have fielded for the last 5 years or so. He went down to Miami and took the team from the 25th overall defense to 14th overall in the league the very next year.  He is known as a man that can take a struggling defense and turn it into a mean, nasty group, and he proved that he had not lost his touch in the 2012 season with Atlanta.

November 25, 2012; Tampa, FL, USA; Atlanta Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel (22) is congratulated by strong safety William Moore (25) after he broke up a pass in the end zone against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Atlanta Falcons defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24-23. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Most fans were on the verge of insanity with anticipation of what he would bring to the team. Would it stay a 4-3 defense, or go to a 3-4–which Nolan has been known to run with success? Within the first three games, fans were left happy but still scratching their heads. What it turned out to be was a multiple front defense. It was a little 4-3, a little 3-4, a little 3-3-5, but a lot of the 4-2-5. It had turned out the defense was running a lot of a specific sub-package of the 4-2-5, or Nickel defense. He was running a lot of a formation known as the Big Nickel or Wolverine in its early days. He even ran another variation of the Nickel briefly during a now famous game against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. This was a crazy formation known by many names, such as the Creep, Chaos, or Amoeba defense. It was a flurry of pre-snap movement and ended up being responsible for three first quarter interceptions, which is almost unheard of for the legendary quarterback. Nolan had obviously hit on something great once again. By the end of the season it left the question still open. What will Atlanta do in the 2013 season? Then after the 2013 draft the answer seems to be laid out. We are going to continue to see that Nickel.

By picking up two defensive backs in the first two rounds, the Atlanta Falcons turned the secondary back into a strength. It was also made it blatantly clear that the secondary was going to be the focal point of the strength for the defense. In today’s pass-happy NFL, that seems to be the direction most defenses are going in, and for good reason. Look no further than who is playing when the Atlanta Falcons defense is not on the field. The Falcons have hit a chord that seems to be resonating throughout the NFL more and more. Thankfully, it seems that it had enough success last year that the team is going all in on this Nickel defense, and its crazy sub-packages.

Mike Nolan is not the first to deploy this defense. He is not the only coordinator to implement it, and will not be the last to do so, either. So why or how is he helping pioneer a new portion of the NFL defense? Simple: he is taking what has been laid out before and using it at the right time with the right team and the right personnel–and showing what can really be done with it.

The 2013 season is shaping up to be a real show for a defense that was vastly underrated last year. Last season the Falcons, according to Pro Football Focus, finished 23rd in passing defense and 21st in rushing defense but still 5th in overall defense. That was without a cornerback that was going to be a huge part of this defense, in Brent Grimes, and another cornerback who did not fit the defense very well, in Dunta Robinson.

Mike Nolan now has a secondary that can play to the strengths of the defensive scheme and is obviously ready to take another step forward. With a young outside corner in Desmond Trufant, a true slot corner in Robert McClain, and a veteran cornerback known to be a ball hawk in Asante Samuel, the corners should be serviceable to say the least. With two incredible safeties in Thomas Decoud and William Moore and a duo of young players to back them up with Zeke Motta and Kemal Ishmael, the keystone to the Nickel defense has been set. Every other aspect of the defense is built for one thing and one thing only, containment. If the front six can contain the run, the back five will work wonders. The personnel Nolan has to work with can do this and if history says anything Nolan can coach it into them. The Big Nickel’s biggest strength is its ability to use either the slot corner to cover the slot receiver or use one of the three safeties, usually a strong safety, to cover the receiver and leaving an “either or scenario” to blitz or roam the field.

The biggest part of this is the ability to disguise everything during the pre-snap reads the offense is attempting to do. This leads us to that tantalizing Amoeba or Chaos defense that even the greatest field general in today’s game couldn’t figure out. What that does is put only one or two players hands in the dirt before the snap. Everybody is moving around. For an opposing offense it is truly chaos and from above it truly looks like a giant amoeba moving around the field. Everybody, including some lineman, are standing up showing blitz and then right before the snap the formation balloons out and the players capitalize on the play that the offense has called. It worked wonders once, but will we see it again?

Maybe, but maybe not. Because as awesome and awe0inspiring as it is, it has its faults.

For one, if the defense wants to they can simply call out of their original play and come up with a disguised run play and that usually spells defeat for the Amoeba. It is risky but those three interceptions last year say it’s worth it. Best of all, we have the staff that showed they are willing to run it. We also have a coaching staff that is smart enough to teach it at a high level.

What it all boils down to is our team moving towards the future, with the future in mind. The team is done with the mindset of square hole round peg and making the defense work whether or not it actually does. The team is looking around the league and seeing franchise quarterbacks on every team who are relevant year in, and year out. They are looking at the types of offenses that are coming out of college, such as the spread and read option, and realizing that the NFL has successfully adopted them and there needs to be a viable answer. That answer, in college, has been the 4-2-5 or Nickel defense for years. It seems that where the offense goes, the defense will also.

So, this team may not be the biggest or fastest, but it very well might be the most intelligently built. It is intelligent because it will not only stop teams now, but if the NFL offense continues to evolve on the same track as today, it will stop teams for 20-30 years to come. Just like the dinosaur or “crocodile” of the 4-3/3-4.