Examining Anthony Barr's Fit in Mike Nolan's Defense

Murf Baldwin@@MurfBaldwinContributor IJanuary 17, 2014

Nov 2, 2013; Pasadena, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins linebackers Anthony Barr (11) and Jordan Zumwalt (35) during the game against the Colorado Buffaloes at Rose Bowl. UCLA defeated Colorado 45-23. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Picking sixth in the forthcoming draft, the Atlanta Falcons have a prime opportunity to select an impact player on either side of the ball. After finishing 27th in total defense and 29th in sacks, fans and pundits alike expect Atlanta to bolster its pass rush in some form or fashion. 

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan operates a multiple-scheme outfit centered on manufacturing pressure through various blitz packages and diversified alignments. But one must wonder if Nolan operates in this manner due to force rather than choice.

The success of Nolan's third- and sixth-ranked defenses, from his time coordinating for the Baltimore Ravens (2002-2004), afforded him the opportunity to become head coach for the famed San Francisco 49ers (2005-2008). In Baltimore, Nolan had the benefit of coaching one of the very best pass-rushers of this generation in Terrell Suggs—who contributed 12 and 10.5 sacks, respectively, in Nolan's final two seasons.

Nolan's tenure in San Francisco was a disaster, in part due to his inability to find an edge-rusher. In fact, Parys Haralson's eight sacks in 2008 were the most generated during Nolan's tenure.

It wasn't until his time with both the Denver Broncos (2009) and Miami Dolphins (2010-2011) that he found players with the talent to be backfield disruptors. Elvis Dumervil paced the NFL with 17 sacks in Denver, while Cameron Wake notched 14 sacks for Nolan in Miami.

Contrary to popular belief, Nolan operated an authentic 3-4-based defense in each one of those stops—which means all of those aforementioned pass-rushers were true outside linebackers in an odd-front alignment.

UCLA's Anthony Barr has the talent to exceed the production of those aforementioned players. In addition, he would be the only player who played the position in college. 

Simply put, it would be a match made in football heaven.

Schematic Perfection

It's a widely known theory that NFL teams draft on potential opposed to production. If that's the case, then it's easy to see why Barr is so highly regarded despite only playing two seasons at outside linebacker.

Not to say that 23.5 sacks in two seasons isn't great production, but it pales in comparison to what the future lies as Barr continues to gain experience. And there are not too many coaches as qualified to teach young, versatile edge-rushers than Nolan.

At 6'4", 248 pounds, Barr is the perfect blend of size, agility, instinct and rawness. Those first few aspects can't be coached, but the latter aspect certainly can. And with Barr reportedly having 4.47, 40-yard dash speed, according to former scout John Middlekauff, it may come together faster than we think (see what I did there?).

Barr has one of the quickest first steps you'll ever see in an edge-rusher. In game of inches, having a first step reminiscent of the late, great Derrick Thomas (Kansas City Chiefs) will keep offensive linemen on their respective heels...literally.

With veteran defensive end Osi Umenyiora leading the Falcons with 7.5 sacks this season, despite being a scheme misfit (among other things), you can clearly see how Barr's athleticism alone can change the course of the Falcons defense. 

Via NFL Rewind

Here we see Barr performing a stunt. His quickness allows him to cover distance rapidly, which is a necessity in Nolan's defense. Nolan often runs what is commonly referred to as the "Amoeba" defense—which is actually just a package—where he has all his defenders standing and moving before the snap of the ball.

The addition of Barr to that package would be worth its weight in gold!

Via NFL Rewind

Outside of maybe linebacker Joplo Bartu, there's not another player on the Falcons defensive front with the type of change-of-direction skills that Barr possesses. Once Barr sticks his foot in the ground, there aren't going to be many offensive linemen with the quickness to compete. 

Via NFL Rewind

Barr freed himself up to make a play quickly—as seen in this collage. 

Via NFL Rewind

He encountered the back in space yet had enough athleticism to make the play behind the line of scrimmage. With the Falcons' defensive run woes (allowed 4.8 yards per rush), adding another piece with the ability to make plays in space is paramount.

Via NFL Rewind

Here's another example of Barr's quick first step. Now while he hasn't developed a vast array of pass-rush moves, which will undoubtedly come in time, his get-off is virtually unparalleled. 

Via NFL Rewind

In Nolan's scheme, as presently constructed, Barr will have the opportunity to rush the passer from a myriad of positions. Nolan will play him on the opposite side of the tight end where he won't be called into pass coverage as much.

Via NFL Rewind

Nolan allows his ends to operate in space a significant amount of snaps. While this wide alignment is a hindrance to a lesser athlete like Umenyiora, it's perfect for someone with a quick get-off like Barr.

Via NFL Rewind

Even in the 4-3-based alignment, Nolan has a propensity for playing the primary edge-rusher out in space at the 9-technique (highlighted in red). The more you study Nolan's defense, you realize just how much of a schematic fit Barr is. 

Via NFL Rewind

This is the alignment Nolan has had the most success with throughout his career. If Atlanta can acquire a true 0-technique (large nose tackle), this scheme will take advantage of the plentiful talent it has at linebacker.

Nolan's version of the 3-4 is a little different than advertised. He positions one of the ends at the 3-technique rather than the standard 5-technique. This player's role is playing the run on the way to the quarterback—as he's a one-gap player.

By having a pass-rusher in this role, the defense doesn't have to substitute to get into the Amoeba package. If you can operate out of the base more times than not you have an even greater chance at disguising coverages.

Via NFL Rewind

This is how the Amoeba looked for Nolan in Miami. Can you imagine the Falcons' version with Barr as the rusher performing a stunt? The Falcons have a wonderful scheme as it's presently constructed; Nolan just needs players that are specific to it.

Barr has a very similar skill set to that of the Clay Matthews III (Green Bay Packers). Motivation won't be an issue, and you can expect Barr to give it his all on every snap.  

In addition to Barr's pass-rush prowess, he also has experience with dropping back into zone coverage—which is something Nolan will require of him. Acquiring a true outside linebacker for an odd-front alignment is paramount for the Falcons moving forward.

Barr should be that guy.

After covering the rival New Orleans Saints for the 2013-14 season, Atlanta native Murf Baldwin returns home to cover his hometown team in 2014. Follow Murf on Twitter and welcome him home.


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