In the offseason, the Falcons didn't overhaul their defensive roster, but they did add the defensive mind of Mike Nolan to quarterback the entire defense. Gone is starting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, but a battle between second-year 'backer Akeem Dent and free-agent addition Lofa Tatupu will help fill the void left by Lofton.
The biggest change for the Falcons is the addition of cornerback Asante Samuel. Samuel's supremely talented at taking the ball away from offenses and combining him with Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes gives Atlanta a lot of talent at the cornerback position.
Otherwise the defense will be exactly the same as 2011's version. The cupboard is far from bare for Nolan and his his new scheme. He takes over a run defense that finished sixth last season in the league, limiting opponents to 97 yards per game. The pass defense stands to improve for the Falcons and it appears to be a focus for Nolan. The Falcons allowed 236.6 passing yards per game last season, 20th in the league.
The addition of Samuel and Nolan will help the Falcons' pass defense take a step forward this season. There are two other factors already on the roster that may end up playing a major role for Nolan's defense.
Starting safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore have been the safety tandem for two straight seasons and early indications are that 2012 could be a big year for the two of them. DeCoud, a free agent in the offseason, chose to return to Atlanta to continue working with Moore and take on a bigger role in Nolan's new defense.
Safeties have played important roles in Nolan's defenses in the past and have had big seasons doing it. As the coordinator with the Jets in 2000, Victor Green enjoyed his best season with six interceptions (one returned for a TD) and four fumble recoveries. During his '02-'04 run with the Ravens, he oversaw Ed Reed's development into one of the best safeties to ever play the position. He also coached Brian Dawkins with Denver in 2009, a safety regarded as one of the most feared players in the league during his career.
Moore and DeCoud are looking forward to reuniting this year under Nolan and all the possibilities that exist.
"We have more opportunities to make plays in the defense," DeCoud said after Wednesday's OTA practice. "I don't want to say it's safety-oriented, but we're going to mix in a lot of things. Both Will (Moore) and I are looking forward to this season."
The aggressive nature of Nolan's defense has jumped off the playbook page for all the members of Atlanta's defenders. Defensive end Ray Edwards said he felt the front four will be as aggressive as they've ever been able to be, rushing the passer and letting the secondary clean up the carnage.
Edwards wasn't the only one using the adjective to describe Nolan's defense. Moore, a naturally aggressive strong safety in his own right, thinks that will be the biggest change for Atlanta's new-look defense.
"He's aggressive," Moore said of Nolan. "I love the defense. I love the scheme and what he's got us doing. He's letting us roam around and play football, as far as from the back end from the DBs. We've got a lot of looks in. It looks like we're freelancing, but we've got some organized football going on. It's fun. I say that most importantly, it's fun."
Moore describes a defense that will allow versatility and feature multiple looks, including opportunities to allow him and DeCoud to switch positions. If things go as they appear they might, Atlanta's defense may take the lead over Atlanta's new-look offense as the top story for the Falcons. Defense, as they say, wins championships.
"I can definitely say this year you're going to see a lot more of me and 28 (DeCoud) back there, playing around, playing some football and being big time on defense," Moore said.