It's been said third down in the NFL is the money down. It's when offenses have big conversions to keep drives alive or defenses come up with big stops to end an opponent's momentum.
It's also typically a passing down, so it's a pass rusher's dream to hunt down on a quarterback when you know he's dropping back. The Falcons get a return from pass rushing leader John Abraham this season and the variety of pass rushers that come after him hope to take a step forward in the 2012 season.
Ray Edwards, Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury round out a group of experienced pass rushers and there are a few younger players like Cliff Matthews and rookie Jonathan Massaquoi that are looking to make an impact this season.
Mike Nolan brings a new defensive scheme to Atlanta, one that profiles as aggressive and demands that the players in the system get to the quarterback. Abraham recently called it less "vanilla" than what they've run in the past. Head coach Mike Smith thinks Nolan's presence should improve the Falcons' performance on third down.
"Mike's forte, strength, and what he lives for is third down," Smith said on Friday. "He's been one of the best third down coaches in the 14 years he's been a coordinator statistically. I think you're going to see multiplicity in our defense. There will be some things that run through the defense that we've done in the past, some threads of it, but there is going to be more multiplicity in what we do."
The multiplicity the Falcons can put on the field includes a variety of defensive formations and looks. The variety will provide more opportunities to disguise some of the unique pass rushes Nolan expects to bring.
"Mike has been a 3-4 coach and 4-3 guy, so it's going to give us a lot of opportunities to do some different things," Smith said.
Last season the Falcons tied for the third-worst third-down percentage in the NFL, allowing a conversion 44 percent of the time. Nolan's defense in Miami was tied for the fourth-best in the NFL last season, limiting opponents to a 34 percent conversion percentage.