Yes, you heard me right: "elite."
Since the Atlanta Falcons announced their decision to hire Mike Nolan as their new defensive coordinator on Monday, everyone wanted to know what Nolan planned to do with Mike Smith's defense. The Falcons, who've operated in the 4-3 system ever since Smitty's arrival, will now be spearheaded by a coordinator who favors the 3-4.
During his press conference on Tuesday, Nolan insisted that the team would remain in the 4-3 scheme. But Nolan also added that he'll mold his system to fit the players on the roster. In all likelihood, we'll probably see a hybridization of both systems, given how flexible players like Corey Peters and John Abraham seem to be.
As for the future of the four defensive starters who could leave as free agents, Nolan made a few comments that were very telling, including this one:
"I think the secondary is one of the most important areas today. It's really important to have a good secondary."
And also this one:
"I'd rather have 10 guys get four sacks than have four get 10 each"
First off, we can assume Nolan will try everything he can to keep Brent Grimes in a Falcons jersey. He's elite, no questions asked. Both Grimes' and Dunta Robinson's tight man coverage could fit in well under Nolan's scheme. Thomas DeCoud, on the other hand, was undoubtedly the weak link in 2011 and will probably end up somewhere else.
As for the defensive line, that second statement gives more credence to the theory that at least one of John Abraham/Kroy Biermann will be back. It'll also be interesting to see what he can do with the two young guys -- Lawrence Sidbury and Cliff Matthews -- next season.
All the talent is there at the defensive end position. It's simply a matter of putting those guys in positions to sack the quarterbback, along with guys like Sean Weatherspoon who've shown great closing speed as blitzers.
One other main point to take away is that in today's passing-dominated league, we'll likely see Nolan run in the Nickel formation far more than in previous years under Van Gorder. That means a guy like Dominique Franks, who had himself a solid game in the slot against the Giants, or a free agent nickelback could see a big-time role next season:
"People always talk about having four starting DBs, but I think the future is there are really five starting DBs if these quarterbacks keep doing what they are doing"
We'll see some players come and go this offseason, sure, but don't expect too much. Nolan took this Falcons job over wherever else because he feels he can win with these players this year. Where I really think his arrival will benefit the Falcons is in...
Developing An Effective, Complex Scheme For These Players
At one point, I recall Nolan referencing the Falcons' tendencies to rotate their defensive linemen in order to keep them fresh. But during road games, opposing offenses can often easily negate this by running the no-huddle and keeping one defensive package on the field (see: Saints). The results were pretty horrific.
Brian VanGorder was often criticized for employing soft zone coverages and over-relying on a front four that failed to generate any sort of consistent pressure on the quarterback. His scheme is better suited for the college game, where you can play conservatively and wait for a mistake.
But in the NFL, the top-tier quarterbacks make fewer mistakes every year, and we saw time and again that the potent passing attacks of Green Bay and the like could easily pick apart the secondary because they had time. No one was there to knock them down.
What I believe we'll see under Nolan is a more aggressive system, one that perhaps uses players like Weatherspoon and Moore on blitzes instead of relying solely on the D-line. Whereas before teams could double Abraham coming off the edge, it would be much harder to stop a blitzing Abe/Moore combo on the same side of the line.
More Aggressive Coverage And Blitzing
You look at the top defenses this season -- Ravens, Texans, Steelers -- and the one thing you see across the board? Aggressive playcalling. You have to be proactive in attacking the quarterback, instead of sitting in a conservative zone for three-fourths of the game.
The Falcons used to be unable to hold a lead early in the ball games. Under Nolan, we'll see less of that and more of hit-or-miss type of games. With his aggressive scheme, the threat of giving up big plays is certainly possible but the ceiling for this defense is now raised considerably. And, if you remember, VanGorder's safe zone didn't always do what it was supposed to (see: Hakeem Nicks cutting through the entire Falcons secondary).
Sean Weatherspoon, who managed 4.0 sacks on the year, should thrive under this scheme. Robinson, who excels as a tough man-cover corner, should also be less of a liability (remember, we saw more than a few busted coverages between him and DeCoud last season).
Moreover, this should be a more exciting, less heart-attack-inducing defense to watch because we won't be watching the Falcons die a slow death in ball games. It's all or nothing with Nolan at the helm.
Nolan Has Experienced Success Before
Not as head coach, but he's spent over 14 years as a defensive coordinator in the league. Nolan found a ton of success with the Ravens during the first part of the decade. After leaving the Niners, he went on to have limited success with the Broncos and then much more success with the Dolphins.
The general consensus about his defenses? Obviously, it's hard to keep them consistent from year to year, but generally they've been great against the run and most importantly good at getting pressure.
Remember Elvis Dumervil? He had his best season (17.0 sacks) under Nolan. Cameron Wake? He had 22.5 sacks in his two years under Nolan. Whatever it is, Nolan is great at finding ways to get production out of his pass rushers. Guys like Corey Peters, Lawrence Sidbury and hopefully Ray Edwards should see a lot of improvement next season.
He's run multiple 3-4 defenses, sure, but he's run just as many successful ones using the 4-3 scheme. I mean, Nolan chose Atlanta just as much as they chose him. If he didn't think he could be successful with the current players, he would not have accepted the job.
In 2012, the Falcons defense will take a step away from frustrating flashes and towards, dare I say, consistent top-10 status.
It's all about the coaching.