All year, head coach Mike Smith has talked about his defensive line rotation. But what does that mean, exactly, to the players who are doing the rotating? To them, it means being put in the perfect situation to be a successful, dependable, forceful unit from the first whistle until the clock hits all zeros. Instead of playing as separate players, Smith's scheme and philosophy at the defensive line positions has allowed the unit to play as one. That, the linemen say, has made a world of difference
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Mike Smith is a man who likes options. The more the better.
That's why, in his third year, he's not exaggerating when he says that his 4-3 defensive scheme comes with eight starting defensive linemen.
That's right. Eight.
Smith spoke at length during training camp about the depth the Falcons have at the defensive line positions and seven weeks into the season, many are seeing exactly what he was talking about.
On gamedays, it's difficult to keep track of who's in and who's on the sideline, let alone who's starting and who's not. Fact of the matter is, it doesn't matter one bit what the personnel looks like on the defensive line for the first play of the game. The one play is hardly an indication of how the defensive line will look in the second, third or fourth quarters.
"Really, it depends on who's going to play against certain personnel groupings, and it's based on what personnel group the offense presents, and we don't have any control over that," Smith said. "If it's a certain package because they're going to be in a certain set, we're going to have a certain defensive tackle out there for that first play of the game."
While Smith may not have control over what he sees on the offensive side of the ball, he does have control over a very valuable thing in the NFL: options. Through his three years with Atlanta, Smith has put together a group of defensive linemen that he feels extremely confident in.
He has John Abraham, the steady, ruthless veteran defensive end. He has Corey Peters, the rookie with loads of expectations on his shoulders at the defensive tackle position. In between, Smith has nothing but starter potential with a huge upside.
"I think all of us are capable of making plays," defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said. "They just put the best guys out there. It's really not likely that we can play the whole game. The other guys come in there and step up and do their job while we're taking a breather, which is good for us. We know that they can step in and do the job when we're not in there and have us fresh when we need to go back in there."
If you're looking for a reason why Smith has dedicated so much of his tenure to having a vast amount of options on the defensive line, Babineaux just hit the nail on the head for you. It's all about the freshness of his players.
The guys in the trenches get worn down quickly because of the amount of energy they exert on each and every play. Teams with steady starting defensive lines may run into problems in the third and fourth quarters with their personnel up front being gassed. The Falcons don't have to worry about that.
If one player needs to take a blow, another can come right in and fill in that position for a few plays with the exact same skill set as they player he replaced.
That's the beauty of Smith's mad-scientist approach to filling in the defensive line.
He's not kidding when he says he has eight starters.
"(The depth chart) doesn't matter," said Peters, who has been listed everywhere from first string to third string on the weekly depth charts that are released on Tuesdays. "I think people look at it just to see. It really doesn't matter to us anyway. We come out here every day and prepare, whether you're first or second. In a perfect world, everyone would play the same amount of snaps. Sometimes it's different, depending on what the offensive personnel calls for, but if you're just writing it out on paper, everybody is going to be playing the same amount of snaps. It really doesn't matter."
Every single defensive linemen brings a different skill set to the unit. Kroy Biermann brings agility and athleticism to the defensive end position while Chauncey Davis brings power and bull-rush ability right behind him.
Babineaux can cause havoc at his defensive tackle position while Jamaal Anderson can take up a ton of space and shut down running lanes.
For every member of the defensive line, this is a brand new world. While most of the members of the unit have been used to getting more than their fair share of snaps in previous systems, the current one gives them so much more to work with.
"If you need a blow, I'm not hesitant to come out of the game, because I know Peria (Jerry) is going to pick up the slack and Vance (Walker) is going to pick up the slack. Jonathan Babineaux is always handing his own," Peters said. "For me, I've been in situations where I didn't want to necessarily come out of the game (in college) because I knew we didn't have anybody that was going to be able to hold up in there.
"Here, it's a lot better. I'm never hesitant to come out of the game if I need a blow. I feel like any guy that we put out there can get the job done."