You have to take a step back before you can make a giant leap forward. For the Atlanta Falcons' defensive scheme, 2013 was that step back. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan finally has the pieces to make the leap forward with his defense in 2014.
The defensive line got much bigger and tougher. The linebackers got quicker and stronger. The cornerbacks became much more versatile. The weak links have either been removed or slid down the depth chart. Nolan now has his kind of player to work with.
"I'm a Mike Nolan Guy"
As the Paul Heyman of defensive talent selection, Mike Nolan picks and develops talent that goes to multiple Pro Bowls or makes multiple All-Pro teams. The list of players signed or drafted under his guidance as a defensive coordinator or head coach reads like a who's who of talented defenders.
It's because he looks for a certain type of player. He looks for guys who fit his scheme and have versatility to play multiple spots in multiple schemes. But he also looks for guys who do more than just one thing well.
More than all of that, he makes sure he has physical specimens who have the potential to turn into something great. He knows how to pick out guys who fit not just his physical traits, but have the mental traits to succeed in his defense—even if they have to develop.
He's been responsible for Cameron Wake and Elvis Dumervil taking that next step into top-level pass-rushers. He can also spot them as they are coming out of the draft, with selections like Michael Strahan, John Abraham and Terrell Suggs.
All of these guys fit a certain profile. They are 250-265-pound speed-rushers who can play as 3-4 outside linebackers or 4-3 defensive ends. They are versatile players who understand how to use their long arms and quick twitch off the line to break past opposing offensive tackles.
When it comes to off-ball linebackers, Nolan has a track record that is almost as good. He developed Ed Hartwell and Jessie Armstead from late-round picks into competent starters in his scheme. He also was wise enough to hand-pick Patrick Willis to be the leader of the 49ers.
His biggest successes come at defensive back, though. He was the initial defensive coordinator for many Pro Bowl players in the secondary including multiple potential Hall of Fame talents. Jason Sehorn, Champ Bailey, Ed Reed, DaShon Goldson and Reshad Jones are just a few careers that he helped start on the right foot.
They were all playmaking natural athletes coming out of college with good instincts around the ball. The Falcons need to make sure they provide Nolan with this kind of talent in the secondary for the best results in his defenses.
However, the biggest thing that Nolan has always seemed to have on his defenses is a massive body in the middle to take control of the interior and keep his linebackers clean. It's something he was missing in Atlanta the past few seasons and finally has.
|Mike Nolan Guys|
|Pos||Name||Team w/ Nolan||Career Highlight|
|DE||Michael Strahan||NY Giants||Hall of Fame|
|LB||Jessie Armstead||NY Giants||Pro Bowl (5), All-Pro (1)|
|CB||Champ Bailey||Washington, Denver Broncos||Pro Bowl (12), All-Pro (3)|
|DE||Shaun Ellis||NY Jets||Pro Bowl (2)|
|DE/OLB||John Abraham||NY Jets, Atlanta Falcons||Pro Bowl (5), All-Pro (2)|
|OLB||Terrell Suggs||Baltimore Ravens||Pro Bowl (6), All-Pro (1)|
|S||Ed Reed||Baltimore Ravens||Pro Bowl (9), All-Pro (5)|
|LB||Patrick Willis||San Francisco 49ers||Pro Bowl (7), All-Pro (5)|
|S||DaShon Goldson||San Francisco 49ers||Pro Bowl (2), All-Pro (1)|
|DE/OLB||Elvis Dumervil||Denver Broncos||Pro Bowl (3), All-Pro (1)|
|DE/OLB||Cameron Wake||Miami Dolphins||Pro Bowl (3), All-Pro (1)|
|Pro Football Reference|
In the end, to be a Mike Nolan guy, you just have to be bigger, stronger and quicker than your competition with good instincts on the field. You also have to be willing to accept his coaching because he's going to make you better if you do.
Tracking the Transition
In 2011, the Falcons were in the final year of Brian VanGorder's tenure as the defensive coordinator. They were 18th in scoring defense, sixth in run defense and 20th in pass defense. However, they were in the bottom five in the NFL in third-down defense.
They couldn't get off the field when it counted, and it hurt the Falcons as a whole. They went 10-6 in 2011 because the defense couldn't stop drives quickly. And they needed to make a huge change. That's when they let VanGorder leave for Auburn—a nicer route than firing him.
So Mike Nolan took the reins, and the starting defense looked completely different schematically. Ray Edwards found himself without a role, as Kroy Biermann finally broke out as a versatile chess piece. But the Falcons were still missing something from their defense.
They needed more talent at linebacker. They needed cornerbacks who would be around past 2013. They needed a free safety who didn't miss open tackles every other play. More than anything else, they needed size on their defensive line that they just didn't have.
2012 started the transition whether people realized it or not. The Falcons started using a lot more three-down linemen in their nickel packages. But they also picked a guy who could be that pass-rusher Nolan's defenses base themselves around in Jonathan Massaquoi.
Losing Curtis Lofton also affected the defense before the season, forcing Akeem Dent into a bigger role that he would eventually fail at. 2012 also led to the dismissal of Ray Edwards for not buying into Nolan's scheme and turning into a prima donna on and off the field.
2013 continued the transition as Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson and John Abraham were all either let go or not re-signed. The Falcons decided to go younger at cornerback with Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in the draft.
They also wound up getting some solid depth players in Malliciah Goodman, Stansly Maponga, Kemal Ishmael and Zeke Motta. However, the best moves the Falcons made in 2013 came in undrafted free agency when they brought in Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu.
Worrilow and Bartu will be the starting inside linebackers in Nolan's base alignments in 2014. They are both good run defenders. Bartu excels in coverage, while Worrilow is a better interior pass-rusher. But they both are high-potential players that somehow went undrafted.
2013 also came with the addition of Osi Umenyiora. While Osi was unable to fully replace John Abraham, he did provide the Falcons with a good fit for a designated pass-rusher. Massaquoi's continued improvement will lead to a smaller role for the former Giant.
|Falcons Starters 2011-2014|
|DE Ray Edwards||DE Kroy Biermann||DE Jonathan Massaquoi||DE Tyson Jackson|
|NT Corey Peters||NT Corey Peters||NT Corey Peters||NT Paul Soliai|
|UT Jonathan Babineaux||UT Jonathan Babineaux||UT Jonathan Babineaux||RE Jonathan Babineaux|
|DE John Abraham||DE John Abraham||DE Osi Umenyiora||WOLB Jonathan Massaquoi|
|WLB Sean Weatherspoon||WLB Sean Weatherspoon||WLB Sean Weatherspoon||WILB Joplo Bartu|
|MLB Curtis Lofton||MLB Akeem Dent||MLB Paul Worrilow||SILB Paul Worrilow|
|SLB Stephen Nicholas||SLB Stephen Nicholas||SLB Joplo Bartu||SOLB Kroy Biermann|
|LCB Brent Grimes||LCB Asante Samuel||LCB Asante Samuel||CB Robert Alford|
|RCB Dunta Robinson||RCB Dunta Robinson||RCB Desmond Trufant||CB Desmond Trufant|
|NCB Chris Owens||NCB Robert McClain||NCB Robert McClain||NCB Robert McClain|
|FS Thomas DeCoud||FS Thomas DeCoud||FS Thomas DeCoud||FS Dwight Lowery|
|SS William Moore||SS William Moore||SS William Moore||SS William Moore|
|Pro Football Reference/Ourlads|
The feather in the cap for Nolan's defense should come from the additions 2014 brings. Free agents Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai and rookie Ra'Shede Hageman add some much-needed bulk along the front line to complement Corey Peters, Jonathan Babineaux and Malliciah Goodman.
Linebackers and edge players Tyler Starr, Prince Shembo, Yawin Smallwood and Marquis Spruill give Nolan some guys who can compete for depth spots behind what looks like a good group of starters that fits what he wants.
Losing Thomas DeCoud was addition by subtraction by making sure that the worst tackler on the team plays for someone else in 2014. Replacing him with Dwight Lowery in 2014 and Dezmen Southward beyond that could prove to be the best move Nolan makes for the defense.
Overall, the Falcons' transition from 2011's VanGorder unit to 2014's Nolan unit was a process. It's one that should finally pay off in 2014 with good run defense, better pass rush and a group of playmaking, athletic specimens.
It's the kind of defense that could lead the Falcons to a Super Bowl. And while yes, there are some questions based on the experience and talent level, the Falcons have personnel that just fits for what Nolan looks for.
A step back was taken. A giant leap needs to be made. At least, the Falcons have given Nolan everything he needs to get his defense to finally make that giant leap.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required), ESPN.com, CFBStats or NFL.com. All combine and pro day info is courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac and Rotoworld.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, college football, the NFL and the NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.
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