Going into the 2013 NFL draft, almost every Falcon fan knew that the Comrade would be taking a cornerback. While the debate over who it was going to be ranged from a big trade to get Milliner, to waiting on a player like Taylor at 30, all questions were answered when the Falcons jumped 8 spots to grab highly touted Desmond Trufant.
What fans were not expecting was what came in the second round. Many thought the Falcons would opt for a pass rusher, but surprised many when they grabbed Robert Alford - another corner - with their second round pick. The pick generated instant controversy, but after some reflection, this selection makes more and more sense. The selections of Goodman and Maponga in the 4th and 5th added to the equation, making the complexion of the 2013 defense that much clearer.
Anchoring Off the Offense
This is a clear carry-over from the 2012 season, so it's not much of a stretch - but the Falcons plan to make their defense stronger by being the type of team that puts you behind and forces you to play catch-up. The pieces added to our offense this off-season make it clear that the intention is to score often, and to score touchdowns.
Bringing Tony G back was only part of the equation. The signing of Steven Jackson was to make sure we wouldn't continue to struggle in converting third and short and to also give us extra "pop" when in goal line formations. Jackson is a clear upgrade to Turner in these regards.
The interesting addition is the drafting of Levine Toilolo. At 6'8", he is a mountain of a man and his long arms only adds to his freakish presence. Toilolo isn't an explosive threat, but he sure is a red zone one. The combination of Toilolo, Roddy, Julio and Tony G in the red zone - along with Steven Jackson - makes for a formidable red zone threat.
It's clear the Falcons intend to score often and big. That will serve as the perfect setup for this Nolan defense.
Stopping the Pass
More so than ever, the NFL is all about passing. Forget the hype about the read-option, the NFL is still all about putting the ball in the air. Coaches are using the read-option to setup the pass, not to replace it. While some would argue for a more stout pass rush, there are other ways to stop the pass. In the case of Nolan, it's clear he wants a deep and fast secondary.
The 2013 draft is bringing in two corners who are freakishly athletic. Both Trufant and Alford ran sub 4.4/40s and have a 37" and 40" vertical respectively. In theory, there's not a receiver or tight end that these guys can't match up with. Even Vernon Davis - a tall and fast receiving tight end - can be matched up with one of these guys.
This emphasis on a strong secondary also reduces the emphasis on our linebackers. The first signs were there last year when the Falcons allowed Curtis Lofton - deemed a 2-down backer - to walk. In 2012, though Akeem Dent was listed as a "starter," but our nickel back saw far more snaps than our MLB. You can expect this trend to continue even more in 2013. You can expect to see lots of exotic looks: 3-3-5, 3-2-6 amongst them. With our two safeties, Asante, Trufant, Alford and McClain - the Falcons now have 6 quality secondary players, and you can bet Nolan is going to use all of them.
Pass Rush by Committee
I know Falcons fans wanted the birds to grab a DE in the first or second, but the reality is that Nolan just isn't designing his defense that way. We tend to forget that Nolan is a big proponent of getting everyone involved in the pass rush, not just two or three players. It was Nolan that said he'd rather have 10 guys get 4 sacks than 4 guys get 10 sacks. And the reality is, it is far easier to draft players that can give you 4 to 5 sacks than it is to find the kind that are capable of 10+ sacks.
The reality is that getting an elite pass rusher (10+ sacks on average) means you either have to pay big money in free agency (ala Mario Williams) or you need to be drafting in the top 10, if not top 5. The Falcons don't intend on doing either.
So, rather than finding one or two elite pass rushers, Nolan is fully intent on putting together an athletic defense that can rush from almost any position. You can expect to see everyone in the front 7 involved in the pass rush, as well as our safeties and corners. Guys like Goodman and Maponga will likely see rotational snaps quickly, along with Massaqoui and Matthews. We don't need them to be 8+ sack players - we just need them to contribute.
The secondary is also key. With a deep secondary, our defense will rely on them to take away the release valve routes - typically run by slot receivers or tight ends. This will force QBs into additional reads and staying in the pocket. More time should equal more pressure and more sacks. This also leads into the last point.
I know some people get frustrated by the idea of a defense built around forcing turnovers, but the reality is that there are few "shutdown" defenses in the league anymore. Even the "best" defenses in the league last year - San Fran and Seattle - had games where they gave up a ton of points. And even in the playoffs, the Falcons were able to score on these defenses.
When your team has a top 10 offense, giving them one extra possession can mean the difference between putting 24 on the board and putting 31 on the board. Those turnovers are about feeding your strength and shifting momentum. One key turnover can be a game changer - as Falcons fans know all too well. Having a deep, ball-hawking secondary gives you the best possibility of generating those turnovers - and by all appearances, the Falcons have that in spades now.
I know there's a contingent of Falcons fans who are frustrated with how the draft went. Some wanted us to grab a player like Werner or Carradine while others wanted lane stuffers like Williams. The reality is those picks wouldn't have been Nolan picks. And considering what Mike Nolan did with our secondary in just one season - making Dunta respectable and developing McClain out of nowhere - it stands to reason that beefing up at corner plays to the strength of our DC.
The 2013 season still looks promising - it just may not look like what fans were hoping for. This defense can be amazingly effective and if these picks pan out as we hope, the Falcons may have an amazing foundation to build on for years to come.