Atlanta Falcons: The Players and Coach Behind a Reborn Defense
"Man, those Falcons look good this year!"
That's a common refrain of fans in Atlanta at the moment. But the Falcons have looked good for the past four years. Since the Mike Smith and Matt Ryan era began in 2008, they have posted records of 11-5, 9-7, 13-3 and 10-6, making the playoffs in three of those seasons.
Yet they still have not won a playoff game under Smith's leadership.
In sports, the wisdom of old often rules. One such maxim, often attributed to Paul "Bear" Bryant, says: "Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships."
While that has not always proven to be true in the NFL, some teams are starting to trend in that direction, and the Falcons are one of them.
One of the earmarks of a great defense is its ability to create turnovers. It's equally as important to avoid them. The best teams do both, as measured by turnover differential.
The past three Super Bowl winners have finished the regular season in the top six in this category. The New York Giants were sixth last year. The Green Bay Packers were second in 2010, and the New Orleans Saints were third the year before that.
So it is a good sign that the Falcons are first in turnover differential after the first quarter of the season. Atlanta has scored a league-high 43 points off takeaways.
Last year, the Falcons were fourth in this category, forcing 29 turnovers. This year, after only four games, they have already forced 12. While this pace isn't historic—the San Diego Chargers hold that distinction, forcing 66 in 1961, the Falcons are on pace to finish with 48, which would be the most of any team over the past decade.
The Falcons have been flying high this season. While Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones and the rest of the offense has had a major role in winning each week, their 4-0 record can be attributed in large part to the spirited play of the defense.
Atlanta is also eighth in points allowed, giving up 19 per game. The Falcons' defense has also been one of the best against the pass, allowing a mere 207 passing yard per contest. That is a testament to the depth of the secondary and its ability to step up its play, despite losing one of its three starting cornerbacks, Brent Grimes, for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
Everyone is familiar with the recognizable names on defense, guys like John Abraham, Jonathan Babineaux and Asante Samuel. But who are the other players who have rejuvenated the Falcons' defense?
Here they are.
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Stephen Nicholas, an outside linebacker drafted in 2007 from South Florida, is on pace for a career year. He leads the Falcons in tackles with 35, has one interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
His consistent ability to make tackles affords the other linebackers the opportunity to chase quarterbacks.
Aside from his play on the field, Nicholas is a fan favorite. Before the Falcons' Week 4 home game, he pulled a young boy out of the stands to help him with his pregame stretching routine.
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Sean Weatherspoon, a third-year outside linebacker from Missouri, is also playing at a high level. Well on his way to his second straight season with more than 100 tackles, Weatherspoon has 26 after four games. He also has two sacks and one forced fumble.
When asked about the Falcons' defensive effort in their Week 3 thrashing of the San Diego Chargers, he had this to say:
We're just trying to run to the football. Whenever the ball's out, guys are trying to get on it. Whenever the ball's in the air, you've got guys trying to take it away. We're doing a great job of that. We've just got to keep it up.
If they do, in fact, "keep it up," this season could be "Super.''
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Moore, a fourth-year safety from Missouri, is having a career year. With 25 tackles, he has already accumulated a third of his total from 2010, his best season thus far. Having one sack after four games puts him half a sack ahead of his previous best mark last year. He also has one forced fumble, a fumble recovery and two interceptions.
His two picks tie him for seventh in the league in that category. Moore, who was one of three Falcons to intercept Peyton Manning in Week 2, had this to say afterward:
"We went out and played an excellent game against the best quarterback in the league. If we have that [swagger] all season, it's going to be a great season."
Falcons' safety Thomas DeCoud intercepts a pass from Peyton Manning.
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Thomas DeCoud [pronounced "day-COO"], a fifth-year safety, is having a fantastic season. Aside from his 19 tackles and one fumble recovery, he is tied for second in the league with three interceptions.
But in Week 4 against the Carolina Panthers, DeCoud had his worst statistical production of the season, accounting for only four tackles. And he wasn't alone. Atlanta as a team only managed to force one turnover—a fumble. As a team, the Falcons gave up 199 yards rushing, a completion percentage of 63 percent and 28 points.
After the Falcons escaped a loss, DeCoud told reporters: "In this league, you can be humbled really fast. You've got to stay on top of your game and make sure you do the things each week to keep getting better."
Oddly enough, when DeCoud is not playing football, he likes to play "Super Troopers"-related ''meow'' pranks on television sports anchors to stay loose.
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Mike Nolan has made the biggest impact on this year's defensive effort.
He's not a player, but as defensive coordinator, he's definitely made his mark.
Thus far, the Falcons are giving up 19 points a game, three fewer than a year ago, and forcing three turnovers a game, 1.19 more than a year ago.
Their relentless pressure has left a couple of elite quarterbacks humbled in their wake. Both Peyton Manning (21.3 QBR) and Philip Rivers (27.8 QBR) have seen their play suffer against Atlanta.
The Falcon defenders, some of whom have been outspoken about their displeasure with Brian VanGorder, the previous defensive coordinator, all seem to be responding well to Nolan's coaching style.
Safety William Moore had this to say about VanGorder:
I was one of the guys he yelled at the most. He also pulled me to the side and would explain things, but he didn’t show that side of him on the field. That’s not a knock on VanGorder. It just the way he coaches. Coach Nolan doesn’t do that. Everybody’s a man. This is just a job. You’ve got a responsibility, and you have a job to do. If you’re not doing it, there’s no reason to yell at you. They’ll just replace you.
Head coach Mike Smith recognizes the significant contributions that Nolan has made.
Mike's a very positive coach. He's not a screamer, he's a teacher. Mike's very cerebral and he makes it fun....Mike Nolan's a heck of a football coach… and he's even a better person.
We didn't want to make wholesale changes in our scheme, but together we put together the 2012 defensive playbook of the Atlanta Falcons. He puts together a tight, succinct game plan.'
Nolan's approach is working. The players are taking ownership of the team, heeding their coaches' instruction and playing hard each week. The results show in the stats, but even more so, they show in the players' attitudes.
Nolan has helped this defense to play both aggressively and with confidence. If they can maintain this level of play throughout the season, then [perhaps] the sky is the limit.