Nolan tweaking Falcons D, adjusting to new NFL offenses

BY foxsports • August 1, 2013

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Last year in his first season with the Falcons, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was widely credited with helping the team make the strides that won the organization its first playoff game in five seasons under general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith.
Nonetheless, the defense remains the weak link in the figurative chain that is the Falcons. Some of that is for personnel reasons, with the Falcons possessing more talent on the offensive side of the ball. Having said that, it’s still Nolan's job to improve the defense as the Falcons seek to expand on last season's berth in the NFC Championship Game.
To that end, Nolan is tinkering with a number of things during training camp and keeping a close eye on some personnel -- some of it new -- who will take on new and important roles.
One of the most eye-catching things Nolan did during the first week of camp was to have new defensive end Osi Umenyiora stand up at times during 11-on-11 sessions. This alarmed some who feared that Umenyiora might not be as effective rushing the passer from a standing position as he has been in his career from a three-point stance. Umenyiora had said that he had "never" stood up during his career.
Fear not, Nolan said. Having Umenyiora stand up is a technique the Falcons will deploy as they compete against numerous teams this season that use the read-option -- an offense that gave the Falcons fits last season.
"He won't have many opportunities where he actually will be going forward," Nolan said. "The read option has created that. It's not like it's a scheme we invented where you've got to stand up per se but when you play the read option, you've got to have some vision of some things. So there will be times (Umenyiora will stand up). (The read option has) come to the NFL. It's part of the NFL now as you well know. Because of that you’ll see a lot of guys do that.
"It's very difficult to have your hand in the dirt and play certain things coming out of that stance because on your first step it can put you in a bad position for what happens next, sometimes. If you're blitzing, it doesn't matter. You can still stay down. Guys like Osi and every other defensive end in the league, there's going to be times when they wise up to it real fast where they need to. Not all the time but there'll be times they'll at least need to do it. They're going to need to do more than one thing out of (standing up) because if they do, they’ll be telegraphing 'Here's what I'm going to do that play.' Like I said, it's part of the NFL now and everyone has to adjust and that particular position has to adjust."
In terms of adjusting what additional personnel will do, Nolan also addressed the situation of Kroy Biermann, who started three games at left defensive end last season, mostly after the team cut Ray Edwards midway through the season. During camp thus far, Biermann increasingly is practicing with the linebackers and playing more outside linebacker in 11-on-11s.
"He played multiple positions last year and we kind of evolved to that," Nolan said. "… In training camp we're trying to identify the guys. In his mind, he's probably doing what he did all season long but in a practice mode. … Last year, we weren’t at this stage. He’s a versatile guy. He'll still be a defensive end first. That's what he is. But as he did last year you saw him drop in the middle of the field sometimes."
There also has been a subtle wrinkle in the battle for the left defensive end spot. With Biermann playing some linebacker and the Falcons having drafted Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga -- to go with Jonathan Massaquoi, a 2012 draft pick -- Cliff Matthews is playing more of a hybrid tackle-end role. He has beefed up to do so.
The 6-foot-4 Matthews, who started his college career as a 225-pound linebacker at South Carolina, finished last season at 268 pounds. He said now he weighs between 280 and 290 pounds. Head coach Mike Smith called Matthews one of the team’s strongest players.
Matthews was asked how he put on so much weight.
"Work out," he said. "Live in the gym. Eat, work out. Eat, work out."
With the departure in the offseason of Vance Walker, who evolved into one of the team's more effective defensive tackles, Matthews might play part of Walker's former role.
"He's playing some roles that require a bigger guy," Nolan said. "Last year he was always on the edge and always at an end. Yes, he's bigger. He's stronger and at the end of the year even in the playoff games in some sub pass situations, he went and played an interior lineman. That's kind of what he's doing now. He's a guy who's playing some end and tackle. In certain defenses, he's playing tackle. I'm excited about Cliff. He's a good, tough, good hand to have around. We’ll see what he does with the bigger size."
Lastly, Nolan addressed the progress of first-round draft pick Desmond Trufant, who is expected to start at right corner back -- a situation that is by no means assured, as he is locked in a battle with second-round pick Robert Alford. While Trufant has gotten beat at times with some frequency, Nolan said he is pleased with Trufant's performance.
"He's certainly not struggling," Nolan said. “He's doing a very good job. He's working with the first group. But I think he’s doing a very good job for a rookie. He’s an intelligent player. We knew that when we drafted him."
The Falcons will get their first look at how well these changes are taking effect a week from Thursday when they host the Cincinnati Bengals in their first preseason game at the Georgia Dome.

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