Before we dive into the idea of the Falcons transitioning to more time in the 3-4 base defense, let's acknowledge that a hallmark of Mike Nolan's defensive schemes has always been versatility. Signing Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, both of whom have experience and success in 3-4 schemes, was a pretty obvious sign, and the Falcons' own Jay Adams shared some details from a Thomas Dimitroff Sirius radio appearance that emphasize the shift to a base 3-4. Even Roddy White is talking about it.
The beauty of the 3-4 is its versatility, which makes it ideal for a coordinator like Nolan. It allows the team to disguise the blitz pretty effectively, and it gives Nolan greater opportunity to confuse offenses with some interesting looks. The blitz possibilities are endless, and they can drop seven or eight guys into coverage, and the offense will have a hard time discerning what they're going to do until they're actually set in motion.
While the Falcons have, in Nolan's tenure, thrown out some unusual defensive looks, they have primarily operated out of a base 4-3. While there will be a learning curve, Atlanta has incorporated some 3-4 looks into their defensive repertoire over the past couple of seasons, so this won't be an entirely new concept for everybody, which will ease the transition. That said, the personnel that was on the roster prior to signing Soliai and Jackson were all acquired with a 4-3 scheme in mind. How will they fit into a new scheme?
Along the defensive line in a 3-4, you want to see a tremendous nose tackle, and Paul Soliai fits the bill. Soliai is 6'4" and 340 pounds. That works. You also want two defensive ends who look more like 4-3 tackles. We've seen Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters bounce to the edge at times in Nolan's schemes, and the Falcons just signed Tyson Jackson, a run stuffer with quality experience in a 3-4. All of these guys make sense as defensive ends in a 3-4 look. Peters should be ready to start the season, but if he's not, Malliciah Goodman--though currently a little slender for this role at 276 pounds--is another option. Osi Umenyiora took some defensive snaps standing up last season but it seemed to be out of his comfort zone. The scheme may prove to be a real challenge for Umenyiora.
At linebacker in a 3-4, you'll have two outside linebackers who can rush the edge and who are sized like defensive ends in a 4-3 scheme. One of the consistent comments about Sean Weatherspoon coming out of college was that he wasn't a good fit as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, but he's shown the athleticism to be disruptive on a blitz when given the opportunity. Spoon's size, however, makes him look more like a prototypical middle linebacker for a 3-4 scheme. Prior to Kroy Biermann's Achilles injury last season, we saw him used in versatile ways, including as an outside linebacker. Biermann is a great fit for the 3-4 scheme in terms of size and ability, and we saw him succeed in that role last season, albeit briefly. Another possibility for outside linebacker in the 3-4 would be Jonathan Massaquoi.
Aside from Spoon, Akeem Dent is pretty close to having the size to be a middle linebacker in a 3-4, and maybe operating out of that look more consistently will be a better fit for him. Beyond Spoon and Dent, Atlanta doesn't have anyone on their roster who jumps out as being a good fit at middle linebacker in a 3-4. It will be interesting to see how Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu are used going forward. Nolan does seem to love the nickel, and it's also possible that we'll see a lot of 3-3-5 formations in 2014. That would alleviate some of the pressure of establishing two true 3-4 middle linebackers.
What do you think about the transition to more time in a base 3-4 defense? What personnel are the Falcons currently lacking, and how can they address those needs?