It’s no secret that the Atlanta Falcons entered free agency on March 11 in dire need of help along the offensive and defensive lines. The team signed three linemen within the first few hours of the league’s new calendar year, but for multiple reasons, no signing was bigger (see what I did there?) than defensive tackle Paul Soliai, a 6’4”, 340-pound behemoth of a lane-clogger who spent the last seven seasons playing for the Miami Dolphins.
Soliai started 15 games last season and registered 34 tackles and one sack. More importantly, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Soliai scored a plus-11.1 overall rating with a plus-7.9 score at stopping the run.
The Falcons ranked 31st against the run last year and allowed 4.8 yards per rushing attempt and 135.8 yards per game on the ground. Shoring up the run defense was a huge need, and Soliai will definitely help. And that may be why he got paid like he did.
Paul Soliai has agreed to terms with the Atlanta Falcons on a five-year, $33 million deal. $14 million guaranteed. $11 million in 2014.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) March 11, 2014
Soliai’s $33 million deal is big, but it’s not an out-of-whack contract considering that there’s another reason, in addition to his run-stopping skills, for Atlanta to have pursued the man.
Since Mike Nolan took over in Atlanta as the defensive coordinator, the Falcons have utilized some 3-4 hybrid looks to go along with their base 4-3 defense. By adding Soliai, a true 3-4 nose tackle, it looks like Atlanta will be moving more toward a 3-4 scheme.
Falcons may be implementing more 3-4 elements on D. Very aggressively pursuing Miami NT Paul Soliai— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) March 10, 2014
One of the reasons Atlanta hasn’t completely made the switch to a 3-4 is the fact that the personnel wasn’t available to run it effectively, particularly at the nose tackle position. The Falcons had Corey Peters, Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry in a rotation at tackle in 2013. The trio’s average weight was 300 pounds and none were suited to be a 0-technique nose tackle in the NFL.
Why is it important that Soliai play the 0-technique?
With Soliai in the middle of a 3-4 hybrid scheme for the Falcons, he’ll be able to swallow up blockers, draw double-teams and control both A-gaps, allowing other Falcon front-seven defenders to focus on getting after the opposing quarterback. Getting more pressure is a big reason why some team switch to a 3-4.
Soliai can line up in the middle, sandwiched between Babineaux at defensive end position and opposite Osi Umenyiora, when Atlanta goes to a 3-4 look. When the Falcons play 4-3, the trio of Soliai, Babineaux and Peters can rotate, or Babineaux can stay at end.
Soliai gives the Falcons a lot of versatility in their hybrid looks. That versatility has been absent since Nolan’s arrival. And even though he’s 30 years old, Soliai still can be a stopgap 0-technique tackle in a hybrid 3-4 alignment, at least until the Falcons draft the players needed to complete the switch to 3-4.
That is, if Atlanta wants to completely switch to a 3-4.
As for right now, according to Falcons beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the team is OK using hybrid looks.
#Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff said Falcons will continue to play hybrid 4-3 and 3-4 alignments. There's no switch in scheme.— D. Orlando Ledbetter (@AJCFalcons) March 11, 2014
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.