Nolan finds promise in struggling Atlanta defense

Mike Nolan knows his second season as Falcons defensive

coordinator has been a borderline disaster.

He’s not sure if coach Mike Smith and Atlanta’s front office

will want him back next year, but the uncertainty hasn’t stopped

Nolan from tinkering with his personnel and schemes to find the

right formula.

Asked this week if he plans to return to the Falcons in 2014

after signing a contract extension last January, Nolan says the

decision is out of his hands.

”That’s the team’s decision, not mine,” he said, ”so that’s a

question for later.”

Nolan has worked in the NFL 27 years, spending nearly four full

seasons as San Francisco’s head coach and 15 as a defensive

coordinator.

He’s been in the league every year since 1987, so Nolan is

confident a team will want his services, but he sounds as if he

believes the Falcons will bring him back.

”It might not show, but I’ve really been pleased with some of

the game plans as far as giving our players a chance to succeed,”

Nolan said. ”And so going down the road, I think there are some

things we’ll be able to use in the future.”

That’s not to suggest the poor results haven’t tried his

patience.

Veteran defenders Asante Samuel and Osi Umenyiora have struggled

all season. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon missed seven games with a

foot injury, and defensive end Kroy Biermann was placed on

season-ending injured reserve in Week 3.

But several young players have emerged as steady contributors to

give Nolan hope.

Rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant, a first-round draft pick, has

started every game. Rookie cornerback Robert Alford, a second-round

pick, made his starting debut in last week’s 22-21 loss at Green

Bay as Samuel, who ranks fifth among active players with 51 career

interceptions, stood on the sideline for the entire game.

Undrafted rookie free agent linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo

Bartu took starting jobs from established veterans Akeem Dent and

Stephen Nicholas earlier this year.

And rookie ends Mallaciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga and rookie

safety Zeke Motta have shown promise while second-year end Jonathan

Massaquoi is listed atop the depth chart.

Nolan believes that Trufant and Alford have a chance to become

NFL stars, but the coordinator went to great lengths to praise

general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s other picks in the 2013

draft.

”I think a couple of them will be upper echelon guys,” Nolan

said. ”It’d be nice to think more than that, but if you can’t half

a dozen solid guys in a draft, you’ve done a pretty damn good

job.

The results, however, have been disappointing as the Falcons

(3-10) prepare to host the Washington Redskins (3-10) on

Sunday.

Atlanta ranks last in third-down efficiency, second-worst

against the run, third-worst in takeaways and 29th in scoring

average.

While advancing to the NFC title game last season, the Falcons

were only 24th in total yards, 25th in third-down efficiency and

27th in sacks per passing attempt, but they ranked fourth in

scoring and tied for fifth in takeaways.

”This year we just didn’t make the plays most of the time to

win the game,” Samuel said. ”That was the difference last year

when we were on the other end of the stick when we were making

plays to win the game.”

Against the Redskins, Atlanta will face second-year quarterback

Kirk Cousins following the benching of Robert Griffin III.

Cousins gave Washington a boost last year in a home loss to the

Falcons, replacing the injured Griffin during the game to complete

5 of 9 passes for 111 yards with a 77-yard touchdown to Santana

Moss. Cousins also threw a pair of interceptions.

”We busted a coverage (on the long TD pass), but he saw it

right away and threw right down the middle,” Nolan said. ”He’s

very capable. I know they like him a lot and have a lot of

confidence in him.”

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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