Last season was Mike Nolan's first as Atlanta's defensive coordinator and the offseason and training camp was filled with stories about what Nolan's defensive scheme would look like compared to past versions of Falcons defenses.
Most everyone saw Nolan's defense take the shape of shapeless last year, describing it as an "amoeba defense" that featured a lot of disguises, confusion and what appears to be a lack of structure. It all worked in Nolan's favor and while the Falcons' weren't the best defense in the league last year, they did a number of things well and helped land the Falcons in the playoffs with a 13-3 record.
Nothing is expected to change about Nolan's scheme in 2013 with regards to the confusion-inducing approach, but when you're credited with being innovative like Nolan is, something has to change, right?
Nolan himself said a new year means a new group of players and he and his staff are essentially starting over, teaching the playbook in their second year as they did in their first. While they did some things well last year like keeping scoring against the defense low and playing well in the redzone and against top-tier quarterbacks, Nolan wants to take those things and get even better.
It begins in OTAs and will carry into training camp, but Nolan said his first objective is to get the guys playing on the same page together, a priority this year because of the new faces and younger players being asked to play larger roles.
"Every year is a new challenge," Nolan said. "You can compare it to the year before, but the problem with that is these days you have a new squad. In our case we will have some players doing new things and new guys coming in and contributing. I would say the biggest objective is we get to continue to work the plays because it's not the same group as it was a year ago. …To me it's really just about playing as one as a unit."
One of the more versatile players in Nolan's scheme is defensive end Kroy Biermann. While Biermann is listed as a defensive lineman, he spent a lot of time last season as a linebacker as well and his ability to help the defense be multiple will be a significant factor in the success of the defense this year.
Biermann said he doesn't think he's seen all of Nolan's playbook, but from what he and his teammates are learning right now, he knows there will be some new wrinkles coming in the new season.
"We've got some tricks up our sleeves," Biermann said. "It's good. There are fast guys. There's speed out there. There are guys that are going to be aggressive and are going to want to make plays and want to help this team win. That's what I'm most excited about."
Biermann added that he thought Nolan's scheme was "very unique and it's very fast paced" as well as holding quite a bit of depth.
The depth is what makes Nolan's scheme so interesting and why 2013 could be a breakout year for many players on his squad. The Falcons have spent the offseason getting younger all over the defense and in doing so, their speed has improved as well. Young and fast is a good combination and those are the kinds of tools that allow a defense to show one thing and do something completely different, something Nolan excels at scheming up.
"In terms of coach Nolan's staff, they've put together packages that create multiple looks for the offenses," head coach Mike Smith said. "Those multiple looks take into account who is standing up, who's got their hand on the ground and trying to create confusion for the offense, the quarterback and the coordinator trying to figure out what front we're in and what coverage we're playing."