Falcons plan to go from vanilla to spicy on “D”

It’s been said at times by opposing players preparing to face the Falcons that defensively Atlanta is somewhat “vanilla.”

That was with Brian VanGorder as defensive coordinator over the last four seasons, but the defense was still the product of head coach Mike Smith’s intellectual property, as Smith’s background is on the defensive side of the ball.

The Falcons didn’t blitz a lot, when they did, their schemes were not the most exotic and they tended to stay in a two-deep zone. They mostly wanted to keep the offense in front of them, to control the line of scrimmage and to keep their defense on the field for as short of a time as possible, controlling the ball on offense and playing field position on special teams.

It’s essentially a bend-but-don’t-break approach, which, with the Falcons never finishing above 20th in the NFL against the pass the last four seasons, did not prove so successful against elite passing teams and, critically, in the postseason.

With Mike Nolan as the new defensive coordinator, expect the Falcons to become somewhat more flavorful. In a video posted on the team’s Web site last week, head coach Mike said that on defense the Falcons would show, “more multiplicity, scheme-wise.”

When Nolan arrived much ado was made over whether the Falcons would switch from their 4-3 front to a 3-4, which Nolan had coached successfully the last few seasons with the Miami Dolphins and which he also has coached with other teams. Nolan said the Falcons would not change to a 3-4, as the organization has drafted personnel for a 4-3 for years.

But, really, how far are the Falcons from being able to play a 3-4?

Not very.

As Smith alluded, expect the Falcons to use elements of the 3-4 at times in the coming season. That means the opposition will have more to prepare for and, as a result, they might not be so vanilla.

The most important requirement for a 3-4 is the prototypical beefy nose tackle who can take on two blockers at once. New England has one in Vince Wilfork, seemingly generously listed at 325 pounds, Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata (330), an All-Pro last season, and Green Bay’s B.J. Raji (337 pounds).

This player the Falcons do not have. Of their two starting defensive tackles, their heaviest, Corey Peters, is listed at 305 pounds. What’s more is that players with that girth and agility do not exactly grow on trees. To the extent the Falcons do show some 3-4 looks next season, expect it to come more in passing situations because they don’t have this kind of player  to employ against the run. However, that doesn’t mean that in the coming years, if the Falcons do choose to switch – as Buffalo just did – they could not draft one or try to acquire one in free agency.

Because a look at their personnel reveals that they might not be that far away, should they elect to go in that direction. For example, they just spent a third-round pick on linebacker Akeem Dent last year. Dent started almost as many games as an inside linebacker in Georgia’s 3-4 scheme in college (13) as he did at outside linebacker (16).

One of the Falcons’ top offseason priorities is to re-sign starting inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, who will only be 26 next season. Thus, the Falcons will have two young starting-caliber middle linebackers – should Dent develop – for the foreseeable future.

In addition, should the Falcons choose to retain him, defensive end Kroy Biermann is much more suited towards playing the outside linebacker/rush end spot in a 3-4 than he is the traditional defensive end spot in the 4-3, as the Falcons use him. Biermann is incredibly athletic and came into the league at only 240 pounds. To his credit, he has bulked up to 255 pounds this season, but he is still under-sized as a three-down end. (If the Falcons, who also prefer vanilla personality types, choose not to retain Biermann, it most likely will be because of he and his wife’s upcoming reality spin-off show from “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” on Bravo entitled “Don’t Be Tardy for the Wedding.”)

Like Biermann, Lawrence Sidbury, a fourth-round pick in 2009, has a similar skillset and is similarly built at 6-foot-3, 261 pounds. Sidbury posted four sacks this season in limited action and also might be more suited to playing an outside linebacker/rush end in a 3-4, if he can prove he is good enough in space when needed.

Finally, take a look at last season’s big free-agent signing, defensive end Ray Edwards. Because he finished with only 3.5 sacks – down from eight in 2010 with Minnesota — many considered Edwards a bust. But, at 6-5, 268 — Edwards possesses the size to be a three-down defensive end in a 3-4. Last season, Smith complimented at times him for his work against the run. (One of the principal accomplishments of the Falcons’ defense last season was its performance against the run. They ranked top 10 in the league for much of the season and finished 11th.)

So whatever the Falcons choose to do in the future, they seem well suited to spice up their bland reputation in the coming season under Nolan – a change that could serve them well and that the home fans might find much more palatable.