At the end of the 2012-2013 season, the Falcons announced the release of a member of their staff. The release didn't garner much attention, but it could end up being one of the more significant ones for this upcoming season. It was the release of the Director of Athletic Performance : Jeff Fish.
Why was the release of Fish significant? It may have been the first sign of a philosophical shift within the organization. One that seems to have been borne out during the offseason, and one that could potentially make a big difference for the upcoming season.
As some of you may have heard, several players have come into the 2013 camp "bigger" - and that is in the positive sense. It was reported that Jonathan Babineaux had put on an additional 10 pounds of muscle lifting his playing weight to right around 300 pounds. Corey Peters was also said to have put on 15 pounds and will play around 305. Likewise, Cliff Matthews was credited for his 10 pound strength gain that now has him registering at 280 pounds and gaining reps at defensive tackle.
Given that our two starting defensive tackles have traditionally been between 285 and 290, the weight gain is significant. Since Mike Smith got here, our defense has favored lighter tackles who can split the seams of the offensive line to get into the backfield. Last year, that philosophy ended up hurting us, as our front-four was unable to generate much push up the middle and also allowed running backs to find bigger holes to hit. While 10 or 15 pounds may not seem like that much, it could very well be the difference between holding the line and pushing it back - especially when that additional weight is muscle.
Fish was well respected by many players - and even Tony Gonzalez credited him with extending his career - but Fish was also not a big believer in "big" guys. He believed strongly in core strength and flexibility to produce power. I'm not saying this is wrong, but it's quite possible that Mike Nolan and Dirk Koetter have brought in a different philosophy that didn't match up with how Jeff was training players. And with a full off-season to adjust, it appears that our new coordinators and training staff have started going in a different direction.
It's not just on the defensive side, either. The Falcons offensive line has quietly become much bigger than in years past. Whereas McClure typically played at 295, Konz weighs in at 315. Reynolds weighs 317 and Lamar Holmes a svelte 333 pounds. This is a big line, and a stark contrast to the lighter lines of the past 5 years.
All of this to say - the Falcons are bigger. The significance of this statement is huge. In the second half of the San Francisco game last year, our lines did ok in the first half, but began tiring out against the bigger (and more physical) 49ers line in the second half. Likewise, our defensive line just couldn't produce much push up the middle and the 49ers were able to run the ball all day long.
As we head into the tail end of the preseason and into the regular season, pay attention to our lines. I think you'll see that our defensive tackles are getting a little more push this year, which will only help our outside pass rush. I think you'll also see the middle of our line providing better pockets for Ryan to step into. And while the overall change may seem small, this philosophical change could be the difference in critical areas of our teams development - and may just be enough to finally put us over the hump.