Mike Nolan's defensive style has been about bringing the pain as he returns to his old stomping ground.
By JOHN MANASSOFS South
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — With the intense amount of time that NFL coaches and players spend together through training camp and the regular season, they can form bonds as fast as quick-drying concrete.
Among his numerous NFL stops, new Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan had spent his previous two seasons in Miami, where Atlanta will play its third preseason game on Friday.
Nolan enjoyed coaching those players and had some good defenses with the Dolphins — the same thing he is trying to do with the Falcons in an effort to elevate perhaps the one aspect that has eluded them as they have failed to win a playoff game in three tries over the last four seasons.
Nolan, the former San Francisco head coach who is now with his eighth NFL team said it just occurred to him in the last few days that he'll be returning to his old stomping grounds.
"I'll be disappointed if they don't say hello," he said of his former players, "but I think they will."
With what he accomplished in Miami, it would be surprising if Nolan did not receive a fond embrace. His 2011 defense ranked seventh in the league in third-down efficiency and sixth in red-zone defense while holding opponents to 19.6 yards per game, sixth-best in the NFL. The year before his defense finished top 10 in overall defense.
In Mike Smith's first four seasons as head coach, the Falcons have never finished above 20th in the NFL in pass defense. Nolan's 2010 unit in Miami was eighth in the NFL in that category on a team that went 7-9.
From what has been visible so far, Nolan has implemented a substantial change to the Falcons defense. He's introducing 3-4 elements to what had strictly worked as a 4-3 defense. In the preseason, he also has not been shy about blitzing and leaving his corners in man-to-man coverage — something his predecessor Brian VanGorder was loathe to do.
Listening to Nolan explain his philosophy it was hard not to recall Falcons' games against the likes of Aaron Rodgers (366 yards, three touchdowns in the 2011 playoffs) and Drew Brees (307 yards, four touchdowns last December) in which they were given plenty of time and picked the Falcons apart. Perhaps this is what general manager Thomas Dimitroff and owner Arthur Blank meant about wanting a "fresh set of eyes" to review the state of the team.
"If you get in the big games and you just do it straight up, these quarterbacks right now that are good, you're doing exactly what they want," Nolan said. "You ask any quarterback in the league right now of the top 10, 12 guys, I don't think one of them would even hint that he doesn't want to … that he would want it straight up.
“They love four-man rush zones and free release by the wide receivers. It doesn't get any better than that for quarterbacks. They just love it.
"So you have to pressure them. You've got to create something. Whether it's disrupting timing for a receiver or a coverage disguise, there's a lot of different things."
At present, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon looks like he will be one of the beneficiaries of Nolan's system. A first-round pick in 2010, he's fast. But in VanGorder's system, he didn't get to blitz much, finishing with one sack as a rookie and four last year. In Nolan's system, Weatherspoon appears that he will get plenty of chances to rush the passer.
Weatherspoon said that learning Nolan's plan has been fun and that he thinks it will help the Falcons be successful this season.
"We have a few tricks up our sleeve," Weatherspoon said, "but we'll try not to pull them out too early."
Nolan said the preseason's importance has included teaching the players his system while also evaluating who is skilled at blitzing. He said one advantage of installing a new system is that opponents will not have seen much of it, so a coaching staff can hold some of its intricacies back, retaining the element of surprise for the regular season.
But at the same time, the Falcons have to drill it enough so that players have a grasp on what they're doing and coaches know who to rely on.
"I'd say it's real important to identify your players," Nolan said. "We try to have enough pressure where certain guys can blitz and things, so that we can see what their capabilities are as a blitzer. So if you hold back too much, sometimes you might say, ‘I'm not really sure if he can do that, or do it well.'
"So volume-wise, I don't know how much you really hold back. Conceptually, you try to do something out of every little concept. For example, if you have inside linebacker blitzes or (defensive back) blitzes, you try to do one of each and run that thing through so you can see who can do what."
Among the changes that Nolan has made is with the addition of cornerback Asante Samuel, starting right cornerback Dunta Robinson will move to the nickel position, which Robinson has not played in years.
Nolan said it is not an easy change and that as recently as five days ago he would have said that Robinson was still "a work in progress." But Nolan said Robinson has made "a real step up" in the last few practices.
"It's a real key spot," Nolan said of the nickel in the pass-happy NFL. "In my opinion, there's 12 starters on defense and the nickel is one of them. It's not just a corner, it's not just a safety. That nickel position is something entirely different from everybody else.
“You can take the greatest corner to ever play and he might be the worst slot player. Deion (Sanders) for example, who I think is probably the best corner to ever play, you stick him in the slot, you could probably turn him into the worst player in the league.
"So it doesn't go hand in hand. It's just different. For one, you have things coming at you from both sides. Your job doesn't just entail, ‘You and me, let's go at it.' In just a quick 5 yards, someone entirely different can become your man. So things change pretty quickly and you do have to go in there and mix it up a little more often. And, by the way, I think Deion probably was the greatest corner of all time, but that job, that's not the same job."
The Falcons are spending heavily in their secondary in the hope that it will pay off — finally — come playoff time. The trio of Samuel, Brent Grimes (who earned the Falcons' franchise tag) and Robinson will earn almost $25 million this season.
It's Nolan's job to make it all work. He made it work in Miami.
"Obviously, you get close to these guys when you coach them," Nolan said of his former Dolphins players. "That was a good group down there."