The Atlanta Falcons made some pretty big moves prior to the 2012 season, including a pre-draft trade for former Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel. But no move was bigger—and could possibly equate to playoff wins—than hiring Mike Nolan as the new defensive coordinator.
After beating the Denver Broncos, 27-21, on Monday Night Football, the Falcons moved to 2-0 on the young season and sit in sole possession of first place in the NFC South. Atlanta’s offense seems, at times, to be unstoppable. Matt Ryan looks to be moving into elite quarterback status.
But the real story in Atlanta is the hard-hitting, aggressive defense—the product of Nolan’s tutelage.
Start with the fact that the Falcons have been forcing teams to cough up the football like the unit was an angry doctor. Through two games, Atlanta has five interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Since the offense hasn’t turned the ball over, Atlanta is sitting atop the NFL with a plus-seven takeaway, giveaway statistic.
In 2011 Atlanta finished tied for fifth place with a plus-eight mark. The Falcons won’t finish the season without giving the ball away, but if the first two games of the season are an indication, they’ll be taking it away a lot in 2012.
“Those four turnovers were huge,” said Smith in his postgame press conference. “We were able to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback for the majority of the game.”
And that pressure led to great things happening for Atlanta in the secondary.
Starting safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud both pulled down interceptions off of Peyton Manning Monday. Backup cornerback Robert McClain, who was filling in for an injured Asante Samuel, swiped another Manning offering. All three interceptions occurred in the first quarter, as did a Sean Weatherspoon fumble recovery.
“We were expecting to play well, but I mean it's Peyton Manning,” said DeCoud in the Falcons locker room after the game. “We were not expecting to go out and get three or four turnovers in the first four possessions. We came out and played fast, we started fast and finished strong.”
Before anyone could blink Atlanta held a 10-0 lead and took a 20-7 lead into halftime.
Smith said that the coaching staff focused all week on finding ways to disguise their intentions on defense. “You have to make sure that you don’t give the quarterback a pre-snap read.”
Moore echoed Smith’s statement and attributed disguising the defense while Manning looked over the Falcons setup was critical to their success. On both his interception and his sack, Moore said he gave Manning one look and then did something different.
“I was roaming the field in zone coverage,” said Moore of his interception. “I looked Peyton off a little bit, it was a great call by coach Nolan.”
Moore, who lined up sometimes at linebacker pre-snap to confuse Manning, said being able to freely move around before the play begins is a great tactic that Nolan brought with him from Miami.
Back in June during organized team activities, even before Nolan’s defense was completely installed, Moore said he and DeCoud were having fun with the new aggressive style. He also said he expected that he and DeCoud would be making a lot of plays:
DeCoud was careful not to say this defense was “safety oriented” but he did note that he and Moore would be “in the mix” on a lot of things.
Moore said the duo was open to be more aggressive and that he and DeCoud could even swap positions at time to confuse offenses.
Confusing the Broncos defense is exactly what happened Monday night, and even in Week 1 against Kansas City.
Moore now has two interceptions on the season. He’s also got a sack, 15 tackles and three passes defended. DeCoud has 13 tackles, an interception and has broken up a pass play.
Only Weatherspoon and fellow linebacker Stephen Nicholas have more tackles through two games than the safety duo of DeCoud and Moore. But the two safeties are having lots of fun.
And so it this Atlanta defense under Nolan. Everyone seems to be having fun with a perfect record, and the Falcons have Nolan’s aggressive nature and disguise tactics to thank for bringing what Moore called a “swagger” to the defense.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.