More of the aggression shown here in 2012 will only be better for Atlanta.
The Atlanta Falcons need to be aggressive, hungry and full of swagger if they want to win the Super Bowl in 2012, and especially if they want to win multiple Lombardi Trophies in today's NFL. The Falcons will be adopting those themes throughout the next season on their way to attempt to win their first playoff games in the Mike Smith, Thomas Dimitroff and Matt Ryan era.
In 2010, the Falcons started using a theme to follow for that season. The idea was by focusing on the theme for that season, the team would win a lot more games and end up a lot better in the long term. In 2010, the theme was "consistency" and the team was the most consistent it had ever been by having winning streaks of four and eight games during the season leading to a 13-3 record.
In 2011, the theme was "explosive" and while the team's win-loss record dropped a total of three games from 13-3 to 10-6, they were much more explosive. They raised their 20-plus-yard plays from 44 in 2010 to 67 in 2011, and their 40-plus-yard plays went from seven to 14. Much of this is attributed to the rookies in Julio Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers. (Stats courtesy NFL.com.)
However, despite going 13-3 and 10-6 in the past two seasons, the Falcons were bounced in the first round of the playoffs against the eventual Super Bowl champions each season. To help rectify this, the Falcons have let former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and former defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder pursue other opportunities and released former offensive line coach Paul Boudreau (via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
As part of the Falcons new initiative in 2012, they have replaced the conservative Mularkey, Van Gorder and Boudreau with the much more aggressive trio in Dirk Koetter at offensive coordinator, Mike Nolan at defensive coordinator and Pat Hill as the new offensive line coach. While Koetter's offense is similar to Mularkey's in play design, the overall play-calling and addition of screens will only lead to a much more aggressive offense.
However, the new defense under Nolan will end up as the most aggressive of the bunch. Van Gorder would dial up creative blitzes rarely and ask his players to do too much, yet under Nolan the players have been asked to do less, and it will lead to more results. Ray Edwards describes his new role in the defense to AtlantaFalcons.com's Daniel Cox:
“It’s a lot better,” Edwards said of his role versus the role he played in 2011. “It’s more of us up front attacking, attacking, attacking and not jumping back in coverage. That’s the more plus thing of the defense and letting the back end play the way they play.”
It's a nice change to see for a guy who many thought would have been an attacking six-to-eight sack producer but was in the wrong role for his skill set. Now that he is going to be asked to do a similar role to what he played in Minnesota, expect Edwards to have one of the more productive seasons getting after the passer in his career and a lot more sacks and pressure on opposing quarterbacks from the defense.
The Falcons safeties have also been excited about the new defense. Starting free safety Thomas Decoud has been enjoying a simpler defense that will allow him and starting strong safety William Moore to roam around the back of the defense. Moore has described Mike Nolan to media including Atlanta Field Report's Knox Bardeen:
“He’s aggressive,” Moore said about Nolan. “I love the defense; I love the scheme and what he’s got us doing. He’s letting us roam around and play football from the back end. As you can see we got a lot of looks in. It looks like we’re freelancing, but we’ve got some organized football going on and it’s fun. I say that most importantly, it’s fun.”
It's amazing how much the aggressive schemes will help the team. The added aggression will team with the already top-level talent the defense has in former Pro Bowl players Brent Grimes, Asante Samuel, John Abraham and up-and-comers Sean Weatherspoon, safeties Moore and Decoud and create a top defense in the NFL for years to come.
While the team is showing more aggression, the new leadership of the defense has started to bring some swagger. Sean Weatherspoon and Asante Samuel are taking on roles within the defense that are going to add to the leadership that is already there from Thomas Decoud and John Abraham by using their swagger and letting it rub off on the entire defense.
Despite Asante Samuel coming to Atlanta for just peanuts, he has taken an attitude that has made him one of the best corners in the NFL over the past nine years and brought it into the Atlanta Falcons defense. This quote captured by D. Orlando Ledbetter sums up how Samuel views opposing offenses:
“That’s what you’ve got to do, put the bull’s eye on your shoulder and step up to the plate,” Samuel said. “That’s how you get better. If you are talking [smack] and you’re telling them ‘they can’t do this or they can’t do that,’ of course, they are going to try. But if you don’t back it up, they are going to [make fun of] you.”
Samuel's attitude should rub off onto the secondary and that swagger will go a long way towards facing some of the best offenses in the NFL. After having one of best team dynamics in the NFL where everyone on the Falcons is in it for the best of the Falcons, the added dynamic of swagger will only increase the effectiveness of the defense.
When everyone is confident and buying into the scheme, better leaders are birthed. The Falcons lost Curtis Lofton to the Saints in free agency during the 2012 offseason, but Sean Weatherspoon is the one who is expected to step up, again, because of his swagger. The Associated Press quoted Weatherspoon about his new role:
"I'm just kind of relishing that role of being a vocal guy, making sure the tempo is right and the attitudes are right," Weatherspoon as the Falcons wrapped up offseason training activities this week. "I feel like if I'm upbeat, the other guys are going to be upbeat. We'll be having fun and making plays. It'll be contagious."
That attitude is going to be infectious. Weatherspoon is the new leader of the Falcons defense and multiple reports around Atlanta have been saying that his and Samuel's confidence will rub off on the defense and the Falcons can have one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Outside of aggression and swagger, the biggest thing the Falcons need to be this year is hungry. There wasn't that feeling that the Falcons wanted it as much as much as the Packers or the Giants in the last two playoff games. That seems to be different this year. Matt Ryan isn't going to take being the first team out of the playoffs anymore as Ashley Fox of ESPN quoted:
"The thing I learned from that game is you have to finish," Ryan told me. "You have to finish drives. You have to finish series and quarters and games. That specific game, the third-down opportunities on the plus side of the 50 and the two four-down situations in the red zone, we didn't convert. Those kinds of plays we have to convert."
And an irritated, aggravated, hungry Matt Ryan is exactly what the Falcons need as their starting quarterback when they need to win games. Ryan has looked like a deer in headlights the past two seasons during playoff games. Part of that has been due to his offensive line not being fully healthy or capable.
The other part of that is his own hunger for the victory that has needed to change. Julio Jones is another one that seemed lost in the playoff loss to the Giants. However, Jones has been trying to work as hard as possible to increase his chemistry with Ryan and get into the NFL routine. According to Alex Welch of Atlanta Field Report:
As well as No. 11 performed in 2011, he clearly doesn’t think as highly of his rookie campaign as others. When asked about last season, Jones said, “It was OK. I could have done better.” The 23-year-old is modest in his quest to outdo last year’s numbers.
The fact that constant improvement, and that nothing is ever good enough is going to be what will make the Falcons that team to beat. They finally are sounding like they are hungry enough to win those playoff games. And that's games in plural that they will need to win in order to give Arthur Blank the title he so sorely has wanted to bring to Atlanta for the past 10 years.
And for all this to happen, the Falcons need to remember that this year's themes are "aggressive," "swagger" and last, but most certainly not least, "hungry." If the Falcons use these principles and combine them with past principles of "consistency" and "explosion," there is no reason for a Lombardi Trophy to not wind up in the hands of the Falcons.
Scott Carasik is an NFL draft and Atlanta Falcons Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He is also the Falcons analyst at Drafttek and also runs the NFL draft website ScarDraft.com and is the host of Kvetching Draftniks Radio.