Falcons’ No. 1 task: Upgrading the defense

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Two years ago, after a humbling playoff exit against Green Bay, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff sought to get more explosive on offense.

By making the risky move to trade up in the 2011 NFL Draft and take wide receiver Julio Jones at No. 6 overall, Dimitroff arguably paved the way for the organization to advance to the NFC Championship Game this season.

After falling just short of the franchise’s first Super Bowl berth in 14 years on Sunday, it’s evaluation time again for the Falcons. In its evolution, the NFL has become an offense-driven league, and so most of Dimitroff’s bold strokes have come on that side of the ball — signing running back Michael Turner and drafting quarterback Matt Ryan third overall in 2008, trading for tight end Tony Gonzalez in 2009 and the aforementioned Jones move two years later.

On defense, the moves — drafting tackle Peria Jerry in 2009, signing cornerback Dunta Robinson and drafting linebacker Sean Weatherspoon in 2010, signing end Ray Edwards in ’11 and trading for cornerback Asante Samuel last spring — have not provided quite the same bang. It’s not even close, really.

In ’09, two picks after the Falcons selected Jerry (mainly a reserve since he suffered a season-ending knee injury early in his rookie year), the Packers took Clay Matthews — proof that no GM, even a savvy one like Dimitroff, shoots 100 percent. In ’11, the Falcons lacked the cap room to go after Carolina’s Charles Johnson and settled for Edwards, who, after the Falcons cut him this past midseason, likely stands as Dimitroff’s biggest whiff.

As a result, the Falcons must make their offseason splash, if you will, in the defensive talent pool. Picture Dimitroff as a man with his fingers plugging the holes in the dyke — finding replacements for Gonzalez, Turner and possibly center Todd McClure — while trying to conjure his magic move on defense.

The Falcons’ 28-24 loss to San Francisco in Sunday’s title game appeared to expose a yawning need for playmakers on the defensive side. Atlanta posted only one sack, one quarterback hurry and one turnover in the game, while also losing the turnover margin.

On Monday, head coach Mike Smith was asked about the need to upgrade the defense.

“I think we need more playmakers across the board,” he said. “I think that’s the goal each and every year: to add players. The way that the system is in place, you can’t do it all the way across the board. . . . We’re always trying to add and put the best possible combination together, and I think that Thomas and his staff have done an outstanding job in providing us with players.”

Smith added: “This year’s emphasis will be different than last year’s, obviously.” The Falcons restocked their offensive line in the 2012 draft.

To his credit, Dimitroff has shown he can be equal to the task. Clearly, he will be motivated. Watching Dimitroff stand against the wall during the Sunday news conferences, his tie uncharacteristically loosened, he looked physically ill, almost green.

In addition to personnel, Dimitroff and Smith have other moves at their disposal. With the change to defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in 2012, after four seasons of Brian VanGorder, the Falcons became a more attacking unit. One would suspect the club’s decision to replace director of athletic performance Jeff Fish (as reported by FOXSports.com’s Alex Marvez), might be related to the defense’s struggles, specifically with the pass rush. The Falcons ranked 28th in the NFL in sacks with 29, with 10 coming from end John Abraham, who turns 35 in May.

One way the Falcons might be able to continue the attacking trend would be to change their 4-3 base defense to a 3-4. Nolan has run the 3-4 with other teams, and the Falcons already had begun to incorporate some 3-4 elements into their scheme. The biggest issue would be finding the right personnel.

By the end of the year, the Falcons at times were using defenses with only one true linebacker (Weatherspoon), as safety Thomas DeCoud would move up to the dime linebacker spot for the purpose of covering an opposing tight end. That would bring a third safety, Chris Hope, onto the field. And that’s three linebackers short of a 3-4.

As it was, the Falcons carried only five linebackers on the active roster: Weatherspoon, Akeem Dent, Stephen Nicholas, aging Mike Peterson and Robert James, the latter two playing almost exclusively on special teams.

Aside from Abraham, the Falcons mustered little in the way of a pass rush. The other ends — Kroy Biermann, Cliff Matthews and Jonathan Massaquoi — produced a total of four sacks, all by Biermann. Led by Weatherspoon, who had all three of his sacks in the first five games, the linebackers as a group totaled only five sacks.

As it was, the starting defensive backfield recorded 3 1/2 sacks — almost as many as the linebackers. That is not supposed to happen. Cornerback Dunta Robinson’s 1 1/2 were only a half-sack less than Nicholas’ total. Among those starters in the secondary, safety William Moore, one of the unit’s top playmakers with a sack, four interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 12 regular-season games, is set to be a free agent. So more dyke-plugging for Dimitroff.

In his season-ending news conference, Smith would not rule out a change to 3-4, saying, “We have to now do some personnel work, but we also get to do some evaluating of schemes of what other people are doing. We get to look at what other teams are doing.”

A question about whether he would mind playing in the 3-4 caught Weatherspoon off guard Monday. “What?” he said. “Hey, I’ll play in any defense they’ll need me to play in. . . . I’m open to anything.”

With his speed as an outside linebacker, he might be able to add more to his sack total.

But such a change might only represent one element of what needs to happen. As Smith alluded, the players have to get better on that side of the ball.