There's one thing for sure about Falcons second-year middle linebacker Akeem Dent: He's being given the opportunity to grow within Mike Nolan's defense.
After seeing 12 snaps total in the first two games of the season, Dent's snap count on defense has steadily grown over the course of the last few weeks, culminating with Week 6's full day's play. Dent was in on all 73 snaps on defense in the win over the Raiders.
Dent finished the day with eight tackles, but what he may have lacked in production, he gained in experience. When the Falcons opted to go with Dent this year in the middle instead of the steady and now departed Curtis Lofton, they likely knew there would be some growing pains. Head coach Mike Smith said he liked what he saw out of Dent against the Raiders, who was getting extended snaps because of the injury to Stephen Nicholas.
"I thought it was a good experience for Akeem," Smith said on Monday. "Akeem's experience up to this point has been in the base defense, so it's the first time he had played in the sub. He played in every snap in the ball game and every snap that he gets is not only beneficial for him, but beneficial for us."
Some have tried to pin the Falcons' run defense troubles this season on Dent, but as Smith points out, the linebacker has only played in base packages, schemes that involve all three linebackers on the field. In sub packages, most frequently the nickel defense, three or more cornerbacks are needed and the middle linebacker comes off the field.
Against the Broncos in Week 2, a potent passing attack, Dent only saw one snap because of the extended use of the nickel package. Since then, he's seen 20 snaps, 30, 28 and 73 in consecutive weeks. The Falcons continue to learn how to use Dent in the best ways possible and get a strong run defense effort out of their sub-package defense. With three cornerbacks on the field in the sub, there's some thought that the personnel grouping is contributing to the run D troubles.
On Monday, Smith shared further thoughts about the change-the-math defense. Smith explained how the numbers in the front two lines of the defense affects how the running game can be attacked.
"When you have seven-man spacing you have seven guys close to the line of scrimmage and the math is even," Smith said. "You've got to do something to change the math. A guy has to whip a block, you have to slant your defense. There is a number of ways to do it. In eight-man spacing you always have one more person at the line of scrimmage than they can block. When you do that, now you are playing one-on-one on the outside. The offense will try and get even and motion the guy in and crack the defender. It becomes a chess match between the coordinators and the play callers and the players."
As the Falcons begin to integrate Dent more into the defense and he adapts to his increased role, Nolan and the coaching staff will be afforded more flexibility as Dent learns pass defense schemes. With him more comfortable in those roles, the defense will gain an added dimension of disguise.