A silver lining, among multiple, for the Atlanta Falcons in the debacle that was the 2013 season has to be the play of rookie linebacker Joplo Bartu. As an undrafted free agent out of little-known Texas State University, Bartu found his way into the Falcons' starting lineup due to multiple injuries.
Bartu showed his versatility by filling the void at both outside linebacker spots after injuries to incumbent starters Kroy Biermann and Sean Weatherspoon.
In defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's multiple-scheme defense, Bartu is truly the hybrid that can be moved around the formation in an attempt to create mismatches. He's athletic enough to be left alone in man coverage on tight ends, explosive enough to shoot gaps on blitzes, and savvy enough improvise on broken plays.
Alongside Weatherspoon and fellow rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow, the Falcons' brass may have uncovered one of the league's next best linebacker corps—that should still include Biermann, but only on a rotational basis.
Perfect Schematic Fit
Nolan's defense, as presently constructed, operates out of an even-front alignment but incorporates many odd-front principles. In the base 4-3 alignment, Biermann often lines up as a defensive end, where he's expected to terrorize quarterbacks, or a strong-side linebacker, where he covers tight ends and defends the run.
Ever since Biermann was drafted by the Falcons in the fifth round in 2008, he instantly became a fan favorite. With first-round bust Jamaal Anderson mired in a slump which somehow lasted his entire career, fans clamored for an end to complement resident star John Abraham.
After Biermann accumulated five sacks in 2009, which happened to be five times the total of Anderson's amount that season, a local star was born. The Falcons finally found their man.
Or did they?
Those five sacks are still Biermann's career-high total, and even the staunchest supporter would have a hard time convincing us he's an impact player. He's simply a good rotational piece, which every defense needs.
He's an athletic guy who can do many things. He just doesn't excel at any of them. As a strong-side linebacker, he often looks out of place in coverage. He's athletic enough to do it periodically, but you wouldn't see a championship defense deploying him in that manner.
As a defensive end he's a "J.A.G." (just another guy) who shouldn't be counted on to generate the type of production that would put the Falcons over the top.
Nolan's fingerprints are all over one of the league's best defenses in the San Francisco 49ers—with whom he served as head coach from 2005 to 2008.
Nolan's San Francisco defenses were a pure 3-4 outfit. Led by inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes, those defenses were fast and physical with explosive personnel.
Nolan inherited a 4-3-based team in Atlanta, but with pieces like Worrilow, Weatherspoon and Bartu, Nolan has a great chance to fully convert Atlanta to a 3-4.
If the Falcons are fortunate enough to be able to draft UCLA's outside linebacker Anthony Barr with the sixth overall selection, that transformation could happen sooner than we think. Can you imagine a defense with Barr, Weatherspoon, Worrilow and Bartu manning the four 'backer spots?
Now that's scary!
Here is Atlanta lined up in a 3-4-based alignment. Biermann, No. 71, is lined up at the outside linebacker spot on the strong side. Akeem Dent, No. 52, is at the inside linebacker spot on the strong side, with his counterpart Weatherspoon (No. 56) lined up next to him as the inside linebacker on the weak side.
For some odd reason, unathletic Osi Umenyiora (No. 50) is lined up at rush 'backer. In a perfect world, Umenyiora would be replaced by Barr (or someone of that ilk), Worrilow would play in Dent's stead, while the explosive Bartu would man Biermann's spot.
You can't tell me that's not a potentially dominant linebacker corps.
You'd have the tackling machines Weatherspoon, who is a fantastic blitzer, and Worrilow next to each other while Barr terrorizes QBs and Bartu does a little bit of everything.
Umenyiora should either be used for depth or be sent to the unemployment office. Biermann would relieve Barr or Bartu when necessary.
Falcons fans should be getting chills at just the thought.
Both Biermann and Bartu are excellent athletes, but Bartu has an extra gear that Biermann certainly doesn't. At 6'2" and 230 pounds, Bartu moves around like a strong safety. Biermann, 6'3" and 255 pounds, is a good athlete for his size but doesn't have the suddenness of Bartu.
Here Biermann was working against the tight end in the Falcons' 5-2 look.
He did a great a job of initially beating the tight end off the snap and giving himself a chance to disrupt the play in the backfield.
Now all that was left was for Biermann to seal the deal.
He simply could not close in time. Let's take a look at Bartu in a similar situation.
This is what the Falcons defense needs to look like moving forward, only with Barr in Umenyiora's stead. Here Bartu was matched up with a tight end flexed off the line.
Bartu's first step was extremely explosive; he got around the tight end with ease.
As you can see, Bartu closes the distance and stuffs the back behind the line of scrimmage. Bartu ended up with eight stuffs for the entire season, showing his ability to disrupt plays in the backfield.
Bartu does need improvement in pass coverage, but he has all the athletic tools to see the improvement to fruition. But it's Bartu's closing speed that will lend itself to splash plays for the Falcons defense.
Bartu has an innate ability to read, diagnose and react. His closing speed ties all those aspects together—as seen in the following collage. Here Bartu sniffed out a swing pass to the running back.
The back barely had time to gather the pass before Bartu wrapped him up.
This is the kind of athleticism that the Falcons need on the edges. At 23 years old, Bartu isn't close to reaching his ceiling. His 85-tackle, 3.5-sack performance in his rookie year demonstrates that.
When you consider that Biermann's career high in tackles is 52, which he achieved in his fifth season, you can plainly see the type of talent Bartu is working with. Moving forward, the Falcons need to hone Bartu's potential rather than suppressing it by playing the veteran Biermann.
Having the ability to choose between two talented players can't be a bad thing for the Falcons. We should all be thankful that one of the choices is no longer Anderson...
After covering the rival New Orleans Saints for the 2013 season, Atlanta native Murf Baldwin returns home to cover his hometown team in 2014. Follow Murf on Twitter and welcome him home.