Head coach Mike Smith has been asked about this year's defense numerous times and has kept his responses largely the same. While focusing less on 3-4 and 4-3 designations, Smith has said the Falcons will deploy a multiple defense, mixing looks of both types in an effort to be deceptive. Earlier this week, the Falcons head coach gave one guarantee about what you can see out of 2014's defense.
"I can assure you this, everyone's been talking about 3-4, 4-3, we're going to be an 11-man defense," Smith said. "I can promise you that. There will be 11 guys on the field when we go out there on defense. Where they're going to line up and how we're going to line up, that's going to be very flexible and very fluid in how we're going to do this."
Smith added that he doesn't want opponents being able to pigeonhole the Falcons defense and by providing different looks, especially in the defensive front seven, they can remain flexible and--hopefully--unpredictable.
But what is the base defense this year? That's the question everyone wonders because base defenses are descriptors like "West-Coast offense" and "run-first" are on offense. Smith said earlier this week, Atlanta's base defense is closer to the sub-package they have employed under Nolan than anything else.
The Falcons hit the practice fields in Flowery Branch for the second week of organized team activities as the countdown to veteran minicamp and training camp continues
"Our sub defense is our base defense because we play it 65 percent of the snaps," Smith said.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is definitely on the same page. Asked about the importance of the sub-package to his overall scheme, Nolan said the sub is very important because of how creative it allows the defense to become in both attacking and disguising.
"For one, sub is about two-thirds of the game," Nolan said. "From that standpoint alone, it's more important. There's more variation in sub than in base. Typically, not always, some teams when they go to sub it's a lot more pass. Because of that reason there's a lot more technical protection. Teams will typically get more exotic. One of the things that stymied that a little bit was the read-option that some of the teams showed up with. They had this wide-open look like here comes a pass and then they'd throw the read-option at you and force people to come back a little tighter. Sub defenses in general are usually a little more creative because of the situation that they're used in."
Nolan said the scheme they're going to run this year is largely similar to what they've run in the past, with some added variations. Last year's defense was hindered by injuries and Nolan and the Falcons weren't able to execute exactly what they wanted. The multiple defensive fronts and roaming players we've seen in the past won't be going away and with added talent to the scheme this year, they could be much more effective.
"We are fairly multiple," Nolan said. "We were probably more multiple two years ago. We went into last year with that same intention, but obviously you have to adjust to what goes on, so there was some adjusting. I would hope that now with the players that were injured last year coming back, the additions of the free agents as well as several draft choices, we'll see how it all fares in the end. It's always about the players, it always will be. Whatever makes up your squad so you have the ability to utilize your guys. A couple of years ago I think we had a better opportunity to use it than we did last year just because it got narrowed down. I'd like to think with the players we added that we can do some more things."
The Falcons defense seems to have multiplied during the offseason. They drafted four linebackers in addition to two defensive backs. They signed two mammoth defensive linemen. Pass-rushing specialist Osi Umenyiora is still around. Sean Weatherspoon and Kroy Biermann should be fully healthy and ready to play when the season begins. Paul Worrilow. Joplo Bartu. Jonathan Massaquoi. The Falcons will have their hands full with competition and roster cuts later this summer, but until then, they're using every player at their disposal to find the right make up for this year.
With all the talk of versatility and multiplicity, we sometimes assume in Nolan's defense that defensive backs also have to be versatile. Of course, William Moore can do a few different things, but Nolan wants Moore to be a safety, not a linebacker or any other variation. In the defensive backfield, Nolan said, you need players in this scheme that can do their one job well.
"I would like that back end to be set with guys that are really good at one position," Nolan said. "I'd rather have a specific guy right now than a jack-of-all trades. When you get to the front, the jack-of-all trades really becomes a little bit more valuable because when you're attacking protections, whether it's Biermann moving around or Massaquoi moving around, or going from 3-4 to 4-3, those looks, that's where you want it to be a little bit more versatile. Like a lockdown corner is not a versatile player. Everyone wants one but he's not versatile. He's just a lockdown corner. The versatility on the backend is perceived differently than it is in the front. Now it would be nice to have someone that can play safety and the nickel spot. When it comes to the nickel player a lot of times that is a guy that is versatile."
The Falcons have a number of options at nickel. Free-agent signing Dwight Lowery has experience as a free safety and cornerback. Robert McClain manned the position for the last two seasons. Rookie Ricardo Allen was added in the draft and has the scrappy demeanor needed to defend receivers in tight quarters out of the nickel.
Everyone will draw their own conclusions on this year's defense and will continue to as the season progresses and the Falcons show mixed looks. If the results on the field are favorable, it won't really matter what the base defense is. Perhaps Lowery said it best when asked about this year's scheme.
"Attacking, offensive mentality," he said. "We don't want to sit back and let the offense dictate what's going to happen in the course of the game. We want to be dictators, we want to attack, we want to have an impact on the game."