Smith hopes addition of Nolan will help defense

BY foxsports • March 2, 2012

Falcons coach Mike Smith has been busy working with his new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

After evaluating last season's performance, they are working on a plan to move forward and improve the unit's level of play.

"I'm very excited about the additions that we've added to our staff," Smith said. "The defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has 14 years as a coordinator and almost 25 years in the National Football League. He'll be a great resource for me."

Before tackling the issue of the playoffs, the Falcons' defensive brain trust must figure out a way to slow down the New Orleans Saints. Smith is 2-6 against the Saints and has watched them win the NFC South title in three of the past four years.

In addition to slowing down the Saints, the Falcons must deal with what figures to be a surging Carolina offense led by Cam Newton and a revamped Tampa Bay attack under new coach Greg Schiano.

Smith will lean heavily on Nolan.

"He's been a former head coach," Smith said. "I worked with Mike in Baltimore. He's been successful where ever he's been. I'm looking forward to presenting a blank canvass so to speak for him, to look at our players and build a defense that will allow our players to be the most successful."

The Falcons are looking to improve their pass defense. They need linebackers with better coverage skills and improved play from their cornerbacks and free safety spots. With the league passing more, the Falcons are considering their nickel package as their base defense.

Smith noted that the team's nickel back plays more than the team's third linebacker.

"The game has become more of a spacing game," Smith said. "There are more spread sets. The nickel back over the last four years for us has actually played more snaps than our third linebacker.

"So a five-DB set and even now, more so, you're seeing six DBs and seven DBs out on the field. That does change things. One of the things that Mike and I talked about when he was joining our staff, was that you've got to play to get them to third down. That's when, for an offensive coach and a defensive coach, it really becomes fun."

The Falcons have had trouble at the nickel back position under Smith. It has been a revolving door at the position: Chevis Jackson-Brian Williams-Christopher Owens-Kelvin Hayden-Dominique Franks.

The defensive backs could benefit from a better pass rush.

"You saw the team that won the Super Bowl this year and the way that they rotated their defensive line," Smith said. "It's not always necessarily the sacks that are produced. It's the pressure that's put on the quarterback and getting him uncomfortable.

"The pass rush is very important (to help you) win on third down. Then you've got to be able to have guys that can match up with the talented wide receivers and tight ends that are playing in this league right now."


-Defensive end Ray Edwards, the Falcons' big offseason free-agent pickup last year, played on a bum knee down the stretch and in the playoffs.

After signing a five-year, $30 million contract, Edwards was ineffective at times last season and was not a factor down the stretch or in the playoff game against the New York Giants. He had two tackles and one for a loss against the Giants in the 24-2 loss.

Falcons coach Mike Smith revealed at the NFL Scouting Combine that Edwards needed postseason knee surgery.

"Ray Edwards, I thought did a very good job for us (against) the run," Smith said. "There was a stretch in the season that he had an issue with his knee. He had a procedure done with his knee."

Edwards also had a knee surgery in training camp and never displayed the burst off the edge that he showed during his first five seasons in Minnesota.

The Falcons hope that he can be a double-digit sack man next season. He finished with 3.5 sacks last season.

"We're expecting him to be back at full health," Smith said.

-Because of changes in the collective bargaining agreement, the Falcons will have a much different schedule this offseason.

"We're not going to start until April 23," Smith said. "The mandatory minicamp can't take place until the last two weeks of the offseason program."

Here's the Falcons' offseason schedule:

-A rookie minicamp is scheduled for two weeks after the draft, which will be held April 26-28.

-The offseason training program starts April 23 with weightlifting and meetings.

-Coaching sessions will start in Weeks 3-6 of the organized team activities.

-Mandatory minicamp is set for June 19-21.

-Running back Jacquizz Rodgers is set to pick up some of Michael Turner's carries next season.

"As Michael gets older we have to start putting him on a pitch count in terms of his number of carries," Smith said.

Rodgers, who was drafted as a change-of-pace back, had 57 carries for 205 yards and a rushing touchdown last season. He also caught 21 passes for 188 yards and a receiving touchdown.

Rodgers impressed the coaches with his blocking and is not considered a liability in passing situations.

"We found out very quickly that he's a guy who can play on all three downs," Smith said. "He does a very good job with his blocking. That was one of the things we were concerned about. He's not a little guy; he's just a short guy."


Defensive end Kroy Biermann's re-signing is "imminent." The final sticking point is that Biermann wants a three-year contract. The team would like to lock him up for four years. The deal will land in the $10-12 million range, sources said.

Biermann, a fifth-round pick in the 2008 draft, has been a core special-teams player, part-time starter and key player in the defensive end rotation. He's also has been solid when dropping in coverage, a particular skill that may get more use under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

Biermann has played in 64 games and made 17 starts. He started 14 of 16 games in 2010, when the Falcons went 13-3 and won the NFC South.


Defensive end: With John Abraham slated to hit free agency, the Falcons are looking for a replacement for their top end in their rotation. Ray Edwards, who had an uninspiring first season with the Falcons, will be back after an injury-marred season. With Biermann likely re-signed, waiting in the wings are Lawrence Sidbury and Cliff Matthews. New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan may want to experiment more with Biermann, who has done a nice job while dropping into coverage.

Right guard: The Falcons drafted Mike Johnson in the third round of the 2010 draft and expected him to step in and win the job. However, he was beaten out by Garrett Reynolds and ended up on injured reserve. When Reynolds broke down against superior athletes like Detroit's Ndamukong Suh, Joe Hawley - the center-in-waiting - had to take over.

Left tackle: Head coach Mike Smith gave left tackle Sam Baker a big endorsement. He likes the way Baker has played when healthy. Unfortunately for Baker, he was not healthy much of last season. He had back surgery during the season and an elbow ailment hindered his play much more than the team let on. So, if Baker does not return to good health, the Falcons will need to upgrade at this position. Will Svitek battled at the position after taking over for Baker.