Mike Nolan has thrived in the NFL for as long as he has because he's a good coach. Every team he's served as defensive coordinator has seen improvements in key statistics. Nolan agrees the Falcons must improve their pass rush, something NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah says is the key to the Falcons getting their hands on some Super Bowl hardware.
The Falcons were 19th in the league last year with 33 sacks. With Nolan's pressure-packed defense in place along with the addition of cornerback Asante Samuel to make the coverage stronger and the return of John Abraham, Atlanta's sack totals in 2012 are expected to rise.
Nolan has a reputation of being very fond of heavy blitzing, as our friends at The Falcoholic pointed out in January. Other significant scheme differences could be coming in the secondary, where Nolan has already alluded to employing nickel packages (five defensive backs) more frequently – especially in the pass-proficient NFC South. And "big nickel" packages, with three safeties and two cornerbacks, could be mixed in more often on traditional running downs.
But as in any defensive scheme, a defensive back's ability to stay with a receiver improves when the quarterback is under duress. And that may very well be where Nolan makes his biggest impact on the 2012 Falcons.
In four of Nolan's six defensive coordinator jobs since 1992 before accepting the Atlanta job this offseason, he helped engineer an improvement in sack totals for the team from the previous season. In 1993 he took the Giants from 25 sacks to 41, in 1997 the Redskins from 34 to 36, in 2000 the Jets from 26 to 40 and in 2008 the Broncos from 25 to 39.
In Jeremiah's article for NFL.com he points out that four of the past five Super Bowl champions ended the season top three in the league in sacks. 2011's Giants had 48, 2010's Packers had 47, 2008's Steelers had 51 and 2007's Giants had 48.
Ultimately, explains Jeremiah, this all comes down third downs. Teams that can rush the quarterback on third downs, typically a passing down, can stop the opponent, break their momentum or will and limit scoring.
Pass rushers can help the solve the problem, but Nolan, upon his arrival in Atlanta, said in this modern age of passing in the NFL, three starting caliber cornerbacks are necessary. They're necessary to defend the pass, but they're also necessary to improve the pass rush.
The age-old question around the NFL is if the pass rush or pass coverage is more important. The truth is they're both important because they can directly influence each other. In recent seasons the Falcons appeared to get a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks but often seemed a split second too late.
Elite pass rushers don't grow on trees and they can certainly change the face of a game. Abraham is still considered elite in some circles and the supporting cast around him isn't bad by any means. The prevailing theory is that if Nolan can get some coverage play out of Samuel, Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson, who is returning to his desired position as the slot corner, the pass rush will improve as a result of the longer coverage times the starting trio is able to hold down.
Most fans try to approach each season with cautious optimism. The same is true for Falcons fans this season. They know that the Falcons added a few defensive line pieces in the draft to go with largely the same group of rushers as last season. By this point in the offseason they know Nolan has a track record of posting quick improvements on defense.
It's early to say the Falcons are on the championship path, most will wait until some point in the season to lay those claims, but the Falcons have good pieces in place and a coach that has proven he knows how to best use what he has. There's at least room for encouragement as Atlanta enters the 2012 season.