In visit to Miami, Falcons’ Nolan reflects

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.”

He hopes to say the same about Atlanta someday.