As the Falcons' defense becomes more and more varied, Kroy Biermann could play an intregral role.
By JOHN MANASSOFS South
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Kroy Biermann has shown in his five seasons with the
Atlanta Falcons that he is one of the most versatile players on the roster. Last year, he played everything from special teams to left defensive end to a type of rover in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme that had him covering the deep pass down the middle of the field. (This is not to mention his off-the-field versatility in which he appears on a reality television show with his wife, Kim Zolciak.)
As the Falcons continue to become more varied in Nolan’s second season from a 4-3 base defense that includes even more 3-4 looks, it’s possible that Biermann could continue to morph into a linebacker.
Biermann was drafted at 240 pounds out of Montana and has bulked up to 260, but this year the Falcons drafted two more natural NFL defensive-end types who weigh about 265 pounds each. With two holdovers from last year also at left defensive end, that sets up quite a competition – a competition that would allow Biermann to complete his transformation into more of a 3-4 outside linebacker.
The Falcons began offseason team activities on Tuesday and held their first session with the media on Wednesday. If indeed it is the plan to shift Biermann, Falcons coaches – along with Biermann himself – were circumspect in their public statements, as is often the case, as they fear giving away a competitive advantage to potential opponents.
“Kroy was a guy who last year lined up with his hand on the ground, standing up, did some things in pass defense so he’s been very multiple and I think he’ll continue to have that role,” head coach Mike Smith said.
Asked if Biermann were going to become more of a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker this season, Smith acted as if the situation were simply more of the same.
“Well, again, I think he was really a hybrid guy last year in terms of the position that he played,” Smith said. “With coach Nolan’s staff, they’ve put together a package that creates multiple looks for the offenses and those offenses take into account who’s standing up, who’s got their hand on the ground and trying to create confusion for the quarterback and offensive coordinator, trying to figure out what front we’re in and what coverage we’re playing.”
As well schooled as Falcons players are in their schemes, they might be even better schooled in staying on message in terms of what the coaching staff wants them to say and not say. In that sense, Biermann was not very illuminating on whether a position change is in order for him but he did offer the slightest of hints.
“I’m just happy to be out here,” Biermann said. “It’s good to be flying around again. Like I said, coach Nolan’s playbook has some depth to it. I don’t think I’ve even seen half of it. He’s going to start opening it up, I think. Wherever they put me, I’ll play and I’m going to play it to the best of my abilities.”
The implication is that perhaps the other half of Nolan’s playbook could have Biermann playing more linebacker. Biermann called Nolan’s defense “very unique” and “very fast-paced.”
Another reason for Biermann’s potential position change is that the Falcons are particularly thin at linebacker. Starting linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas both had offseason surgeries and have not participated in OTAs thus far, though Smith said he thought they would be back by the end. Last season, the Falcons carried five linebackers and one of them was the aging Mike Peterson, who, as of yet, is unsigned and unlikely to return.
Pat Schiller, an undrafted free agent in 2012 who spent last year on the practice squad, took reps with the first team defense on Wednesday, as did reserve Robert James.
Nolan noted that one area in which he would like to improve is pass coverage against the tight end. Seeing as he dropped the athletic Biermann into coverage last year in almost a safety-type role, it’s also possible that the Falcons think the player could help in that respect.
Two veteran players have not participated in the first two workouts, tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Roddy White, two of the team’s best and most veteran players. Smith stressed that the workouts are voluntary.
Gonzalez has not participated in OTAs in the past and it has not been an issue. It’s also true that White, entering his ninth year and the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions, does not exactly need schooling on the playbook.
The other two players who were not present were both key draft picks, first-round pick Desmond Trufant, a cornerback expected to start, and fourth-round pick Levine Toilolo, a tight end. Smith said that Trufant and Toilolo were prevented from participating by a rule in the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement that says graduating seniors must not miss graduation because of the workouts. Both players played at Pacific-12 schools that are on the quarter system and have yet to graduate.
“Obviously, you’d like for them to be here but the rules are the rules,” Smith said, “and (Trufant)’s going to be graduating and walking with his class, which is an important milestone in his life. I think it’s a good rule. He’s going to miss opportunities on the field but we’ve got a plan in place. We’re executing it. There’s lots of ways that you can communicate with technology now in terms of having meetings. We’ve been able to every day. What we put in, we’re having a meeting with him, as well. So he’s getting the mental part of it, it’s just the physical part and the bonding part of being here with the rest of his teammates… We’ll get him here as soon as the rules allow.”
As far as that technology, Nolan said that secondary coach Tim Lewis uses Skype to communicate with Trufant on a daily basis.
Nonetheless, the rule is putting Trufant behind on his learning curve. As the Falcons also drafted a cornerback in the second round in Robert Alford, that could emerge as an interesting competition battle.
“Does it behind Trufant behind? Yes, naturally, it does,” Nolan said. “Also this, though, one of the reasons we did draft him, as well, is he’s a very bright individual and with our need at corner we were hoping to get someone to contribute early and hopefully he can do that, although Robert Alford is doing an excellent job, as well. As far as Desmond, it puts him behind a little bit…
“The bullets fly much faster out there on the field than they do on the telephone. I’d rather have him here, obviously, but he’s not. I think he’ll catch up.”
Getting up to snuff on the read option
Nolan said he thought the Falcons played the most games against read-option teams in the league last year at five and while they were 3-2 in those games he said they were not very happy with how they played in those. A 30-28 win over Carolina and the last-second playoff win over Seattle, in particular, were high-wire acts.
So the Falcons staff went up to Clemson University earlier this year for a tutorial on stopping the offense.
“I believe everybody in the NFL, it’s safe to say everybody is investigating it from a defensive standpoint and an offensive standpoint a lot further than they did in the past,” Nolan said. “And we’re one of them. We put some time into it, as we should.
“So yes, we looked at it. Our visit there along with talking to other people was very beneficial. I thought they were great there. I thought they did an excellent job. I found their staff very accommodating. But that’s where you have to go to really get the roots to what the offense brings. Seattle and San Francisco aren’t going to tell us anything because they’re getting it from those people, as well, as we all know. We spent considerable time it and we will continue to do that as everyone will do.”