Are the Atlanta Falcons going to run a 3-4 defensive scheme in 2014, or will they utilize a 4-3? That’s been a huge question during the offseason, a question that’s gone unanswered by a coaching staff that’s trying as hard as it can not to answer.
“Everybody has been talking about 3-4, 4-3,” head coach Mike Smith said after Wednesday's OTA session at the team's practice facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia. “We’re going to be an 11-man defense, I can promise you that.
"There will be 11 guys on the field when we go out there on defense. Where they’re going to line up, and how they’re going to line up, that’s going to be very flexible and very fluid.”
Smith even joked that 12 men on defense would be illegal, and if the Falcons ever lined up just 10—well, he’d be less-than-happy.
When the coaching staff refuses to announce which defensive scheme it plans to use, it’s not that it’s playing games with the media. OK, maybe it is just a little. Look at the bigger picture, though.
The more Atlanta can keep other teams guessing about what they’ll see in 2014, the longer the Falcons can keep opposing coaches in the film room. The longer opposing teams have to think about multiple defensive fronts, the better competitive advantage the Falcons will have.
Speaking of buzz words around Flowery Branch, “multiple” has been used quite frequently among the defensive coaching staff.
It was tough last season watching injury after injury on defense. Smith said it wasn’t a whole lot of fun having a bunch of rookies on the field in 2013, and said “there were times that we looked out there and we had seven rookies on defense.”
While the live, in-game experience the rookies got will help the team in the long run, looking at rookie corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in the secondary, and relying on undrafted rookies Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow at linebacker for huge chunks of the season, meant defensive coordinator Mike Nolan had to dial back what he could do on defense.
"We're fairly multiple," Nolan said about the overall sense of his defense. "We were probably more multiple two years ago. We went into last year with that same intention, but obviously you have to adjust to what goes on. I would hope now with the players that we lost last year [to injury, and the fact that] we got a couple back, and with the addition of free agents and several draft choices.
"It's always about the players. It always will be. What we do in the multiple sense is with that intention all the time. And that is, whatever makes up your squad, that you have ability to utilize your guys. A couple of years ago I felt we had a better chance to use it than we did last year, because it got narrowed down. I'd like to think with those players I just mentioned, that we can do more now."
With the addition of Ra’Shede Hageman and Prince Shembo in the draft, and by adding Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai via free agency, you can easily see that Atlanta would like to show more 3-4 looks in 2014. The team won’t abandon the 4-3. But now with a nose tackle in Soliai, and the myriad linebackers the Falcons drafted, Nolan has more tools to be “multiple.”
How will those tools equate to getting pressure on the opposing quarterback?
To answer that question, it may be better to look at the group of additions to this defense that Nolan said he missed the most in 2013: the guys who fell to injury.
Add Kroy Biermann, Sean Weatherspoon and Corey Peters back into the mix with Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Massaquoi, and after watching the two OTA sessions open to the media over the past two weeks, getting after the quarterback is going to start with the veterans.
This isn’t to say Hageman, Shembo and even Tyler Starr, who shined in rookie minicamp, won’t play a role in Atlanta’s pass rush; it’s just going to take some time for them to move up the depth chart and get onto the field.
When the linebackers work on individual drills with coach Mark Collins, it’s always Biermann, Massaquoi and Stansly Maponga that are featured prominently. Biermann was lost to an Achilles injury after just two games in 2013. During camp, and in the months prior, he was being utilized as a hybrid defensive end and linebacker.
Heading into 2014, Biermann looks as if he’s just going to be an attack-the-quarterback outside linebacker. The same goes for Massaquoi, who said after his four-sack performance from last season, he’s ready to be “that spark” the Falcons defense needs in the pass rush.
Spoon's pick for biggest progression on defense this year: Jonathan Massaquoi. #RiseUp— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) April 23, 2014
“Ball get-offs,” Massaquoi said, as the No. 1 aspect of his game he’s tried to improve during the offseason. “Working with great guys such as Justin Houston and a couple of other guys. The main thing with getting to the quarterback; it all starts with ball get-off.
"I’m working on that every day out here. Mark Collins has been working with me as well, and the strength and conditioning coaches have been working with me [to improve] my ball get-offs. We’ve been looking for that [pass-rushing] spark during the offseason.”
Biermann still has a long way to go before he’s considered 100 percent healthy and ready to start. But he’s expected to be ready by training camp where he and Massaquoi will likely be the starting outside linebackers.
After being moved to a designated pass-rushing role toward the end of the 2013 season, Umenyiora said he wasn’t sure what 2014 had in store for him, but he’d adjust, as reported by John Manasso of Fox Sports South.
"I don't know exactly what my role is going to be. I think it will be determined as the weeks go on."
Asked if he was OK with being a DPR, he responded, "I'm employee No. 50 for the Atlanta Falcons. Whatever they ask me to do is what I'm going to do. If that's what they want me to do, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability."
With Soliai and Jackson shoring up the run and Jonathan Babineaux at defensive end, the Falcons will mix and match Biermann, Massaquoi and Umenyiora, along with Maponga, who’s expected to play an expanded role in 2014.
These veterans will be the first wave of pass-rushers the Falcons trot onto the field to improve upon a defense that ranked 29th last season with only 32 sacks.
As the season progresses, or possibly as soon as training camp, depending on how quickly the rookies learn the playbook, Atlanta will start involving Hageman and Shembo, and maybe a few other rookies, into the pass-rushing plan.
But early on, it’ll all be about the vets.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand at OTAs in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on May 5, 2014.
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.