Last season the Atlanta Falcons were 24th in total defense in the league. They surrendered a lot of yards (348.2 yds/gm) but were pretty good at not giving up a lot of points (20.3 pts/gm). Another bad statistic that haunted Atlanta was the 109 penalties they committed during the season (don't know the exact stats, but I would bet a good portion of them were on the defense).
One thing is for sure...the defense will look totally different this season with the losses of starters Keith Brooking, Grady Jackson, Michael Boley, Dominique Foxworth, and Lawyer Milloy.
The question looming this offseason is, will the defense improve or regress?
On one hand, looking at the losses on defense, fans could have reason to worry. This wouldn't be a huge worry if there were solid guys ready to step in and start in place of the losses. However...neither backup LB Stephen Nicholas and S Thomas DeCoud garnered significant playing time last season. LB Coy Wire started near the end of the season and was solid but is better suited as a backup.
At corner, Brent Grimes started for about half the season before getting injured and played solid but unspectacular. Grimes would also be better suited as a backup. The only other corner to get significant playing time was nickelback Chevis Jackson, who showed a lot of promise. The question is, can Jackson become a starter?
Obviously since the Falcons took a close look at safeties and corners at the combine, one would think they are seriously considering drafting at both positions. Also the new regime's gameplan is to get starters in the draft and build depth through free agency.
There are two problems with that scenario...one being how can they draft five guys to start? Obviously that's not their plan either, unless they are being overconfident in their drafting abilities.
The second problem, is do you want five rookies starting on defense? Hopefully the addition of LB Mike Peterson from Jacksonville will fill one void at linebacker but that still leaves another starter and depth that needs to be addressed. I'm all for bringing in young talent to fill some voids, but what about veteran leadership? This is bound to be causing a lot of people to scratch their heads.
The main problem and why the Falcons haven't added more talent in free agency is because of the Michael Vick situation. Atlanta has about $20 million in salary cap money, but if Vick is reinstated, he will cost about $15 million against it according to what I have read.
We all know that the team would like to trade Vick, but that probably isn't going to happen because every team out there knows the Falcons will have to cut him. If they cut him after June 1, they can split the cap hit over two years. So you can see why the team has been reluctant to spend much money (thanks Vick...you're still screwing the Falcons two years later).
They will probably know what will happen in June or July after Vick gets out of jail. If he is reinstated, they will cut him...they won't have much choice. If he isn't reinstated, then no harm done, and they keep their cap money. After all the dust settles, then they will be able to pick up free agents (although most of the good ones will be gone).
Okay, now that you have heard all the doom and gloom, let's look at the upside of the situation. When the team jettisoned starters Warrick Dunn, Rod Coleman, Alge Crumpler, etc., and traded DeAngelo Hall, everyone said the Falcons were in rebuilding mode. What they didn't look at was that none of those guys were big contributors during the miserable 4-12 campaign. Without those guys the team went 11-5 last year.
The defense was ranked 24th with the five lost starters...could the same thing happen again and the defense improve dramatically? If they regress, they don't have far to fall, so it may seem that they only (and hopefully) will get better.
One last question that lingers in a few fans' minds is the defensive scheme/coordinator of the Falcons. Mike Smith's defensive scheme is based on being able to put pressure with the defensive line without blitzing very often. Last year the Falcons couldn't pressure the quarterback and didn't end up with very many sacks (34). Almost half of those came from often injured John Abraham.
If the Falcons are going to be better this year, then they need to be able to pressure the quarterback more. It's time for Jamaal Anderson to produce or roost on the bench.
The team needs to address the defensive line heavily in the draft. There's no doubt the team needs help in the secondary, but if you don't pressure the quarterback, it doesn't matter who you have at corner and safety—they probably won't be successful (look at Charles Woodson and Nnamdi Asomugha).
Last year the team needed to blitz more to be able to pressure the quarterback, and they didn't (a big reason for the big yardage they gave up each game). The team was forced to play a lot of zone even though the corners were better suited to play man to man. Also the linebackers played horribly...and the safeties ended up making a bundle of tackles.
Atlanta couldn't stop the run and was often fooled by fakes/misdirection. They also seemed to get caught playing run and the other team would pass and vice versa.
One other thing that was bothersome was the defenders often would look out of position and like they didn't know what they were doing before the ball was snapped. I attended the St. Louis game, and I was stunned at how many times defensive substitutions would be running onto the field only to be waved off and return to the bench.
Also in that game, there was a heated exchange between Mike Smith and safety Erik Coleman. If the defense doesn't know what they are doing by the end of the season, then who is to blame?
This raises a few final questions...is Brian VanGorder a good defensive coordinator? How much of the bad play of the linebackers could be laid on the linebackers coach? Even with new (and possibly better) players, will the defense actually be any better?
We will find out next season. Hopefully they will be better on defense, and these questions can be laid to rest.