For the 4-12 Atlanta Falcons, and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the decision to fully evolve from an even-front alignment to an odd-based front couldn't have come a second sooner. After all, when you finish 21st overall against the pass, while giving up an astonishing 8.0 yards per attempt, in addition to relinquishing 4.8 yards per attempt on the ground (31st)-it's safe to say that change is inevitable.
While I've been certain for quite some time that the evolution would take place this season, the free agency additions of 5-technique end Tyson Jackson (Kansas City Chiefs) and nose tackle Paul Soliai (Miami Dolphins) cemented that notion.
But make no mistake about it, adding a couple of 300-plus pound linemen doesn't automatically transform the Falcons defense into the Pittsburgh Steelers' famed "Steel Curtain" defense.
In fact, with Atlanta re-signing many of its 4-3 parts, namely penetrating tackles Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters, and still predominately possessing personnel from an even-front scheme, matters may only be further complicated moving forward.
To put it simply, Atlanta has its work cut out moving forward in free agency and the draft.
Quick, think of the most dominant 3-4-based scheme in the NFL. Chances are most of you thought of the San Francisco 49ers' athletic, punishing defense. The framework for their success was laid by none other than Nolan himself as he was the head coach from 2005-08.
It can be said that this was the last time Nolan got to truly run his scheme as he had complete autonomy-and time- to do whatever was needed to be successful. If so, it makes his first two seasons spent in Atlanta an anomaly as he clearly was splicing things together to accommodate head coach Mike Smith's, and former DC Brian VanGorder's, 4-3-based roster.
Atlanta's front, sans Jackson and Soliai, is largely comprised of one-gap penetrators who are more effective playing the run on the way to the pass, opposed to natural "two-gappers" who are more effective applying a read-and-react technique.
Now while you will rarely see an all two-gap front, having the ability to do so against run-heavy teams could be the difference between a decent defense and a great defense. And as fans know, most of the teams that are penciled in as contenders, especially in the NFC, have the ability to dominate on the ground.
Here we see what Nolan's scheme looked like in the penultimate season of his tenure in San Francisco (taken from my own vast library of games). Each of his down linemen were lined head up over their man.
This is because Nolan's physical defenses would concentrate on stopping the run first and foremost. By positioning his linemen head up, they are assigned the responsibility of both gaps (the space on either side of an offensive lineman).
Lets take a look at each of the respective roles in relation to the Falcons.
0- and 1-technique (NT)
Soliai (6'4", 340 lbs): He has the ability to eat double-teams as a 1-technique and is really good at two-gapping at his 0-technique position. He is a must have for an odd-front alignment. But after him, there's major question marks as far as depth.
Corey Peters (6'3", 305 lbs): When the Falcons lined up in the 3-4, in certain instances, Peters was the lineman that manned the nose tackle spot. Peters is a one-gap penetrator by nature but had some good moments at the 1-technique. Like this one:
Here we see Peters line up at the 1-technique. He'd likely back up Soliai at this position, but could be a starter at the 3-technique along side of him.
Peters uses an "arm-over" technique to shoot the gap even while lined up at the nose tackle. He makes the stop in the backfield while other are tied up at the point of attack. Usually shooting gaps on the way to the run is a risky proposition as you could flat-out guess wrong. This is why two-gapping from the nose position is ideal for teams with a great run defense.
Prototype: Vince Wilfork (6'2", 325 lbs): Wilfork has the ability to stuff the run like Soliai and can also rush the passer like Peters. Throughout the duration of his career he's been the premier nose tackle in the league.
2-, 3- and 5-technique (DT/DE)
Tyson Jackson (6'4", 296 lbs): Jackson was originally billed as the next best one-gap penetrator when he was taken third overall in the 2009 draft. After busting at that position he was repackaged as a run-stuffing presence. At this point he's a two-down player who needs to be subbed in clear passing situations.
Jonathan Babineaux (6'2", 300 lbs): "Babs" is a natural one-gap player who fits best in a 4-3 similar to Peters. At one point in time he was a major disruption in the interior of the formation. His game has now evolved to where he's a stout presence against the run. He would ideally come in for Jackson in sub packages to rush the passer.
Cliff Matthews (6'4", 268 lbs): Matthews is a scheme misfit in a traditional 3-4. Since the Falcons, like most odd-front schemes, will have plenty of even-front alignments Matthews will provide depth.
Malliciah Goodman (6'4", 276 lbs): Goodman is a much better fit in a 4-3-based alignment. He's not athletic enough to be an edge presence in a 3-4, and lacks the girth to play on the interior. He may be able to play the one-gap, 3-technique penetrator in certain situations, but might just be too small for the 5-technique position—which usually calls for players that are close to 300 pounds.
Prototype: J.J. Watt (6'5", 289 lbs) Watt's a special talent. He may be one of the first players in history who could dominate at any position along a formation. He's the best interior pass-rusher and his run defense is equally as effective.
Many fans are unaware that the 3-4 usually requires a certain type of inside linebacker. Due to the fact that some offensive linemen are uncovered, as there are only three down defensive linemen, inside backers must be able to fight through blocks on their way to ball-carriers.
This is where the Falcons currently don't have any players on the roster that fits that description.
Don't get me wrong, the Falcons have good, young talent at linebacker, but all of them are prototypical linebackers in a 4-3-based scheme. Which should come to little surprise as they all were drafted to play in said scheme.
Usually you want these linebackers to be larger than the ones in 4-3 schemes as they encounter a ton of traffic on run plays. And you want at least one of the linebackers to have a stack-and-shed style of tackling. This means the backer takes on blocks and disposes them on their way to a tackle. This is opposed to the run-and-chase linebacker who uses athleticism to get around blocks and run running backs down.
Neither style is superior to the other, it's just an innate way of playing the linebacker position. This is something I had personal experience with playing an inside linebacker in a 3-4-based defense. I had a run-and-chase style that that wasn't as effective in this defense as I was often forced to take on guards and fullbacks while my running mate made a great deal of the plays.
I was better suited to play the "Will" backer in a 4-3 scheme as it suited my style of play perfectly. This can be said about virtually every linebacker currently on the Falcons' roster.
Weak-side Inside linebacker
This is the playmaking position of the inside linebackers. Generally you want a backer with good instinct, speed and is a sure tackler.
Sean Weatherspoon (6'2", 244 lbs): "Spoon" is more suited to play the strong-side backer position in a 4-3. He's a terrific athlete that can make plays on the ball. But playing him at the open side of the formation makes more sense in a 3-4 as he's the fastest of all the backers and can cover the most distance. But with that being said, there's not a team in the league that would've drafted him to play any position in a 3-4. Not saying he can't be effective, it's merely shedding light on the type of player he is.
Joplo Bartu (6'2", 230 lbs): Bartu is a versatile player that will make plays regardless of the scheme. But that doesn't change the fact that he's not a natural fit in an odd-front scheme. He's smaller than some safeties and will struggle with guards and fullbacks—similar to how I did. If the Falcons had a bigger linebacker that could take on blocks Bartu, and Spoon's, lack of size could be partially compensated for.
Prototype: NaVorro Bowman (6'0", 242 lbs): Bowman doesn't have a deficient part to his game. He can run, cover, chase and blow up blocks with the best of them.
Case in point...
Strong-side Inside linebacker
This is a difficult role to play. This backer must take on blocks from fullbacks and linemen alike allowing the "Will" inside backer to make plays. This player lines up on the closed side of the formation. You want a player that is extremely stout at the point of attack so he, too, can make plays.
Paul Worrilow (6'0", 230 lbs): Worrilow was a tackling machine in the Falcons' hybrid scheme, and he still could be in a 3-4 as well. It's type of tackles that separates good players from great ones. Worrilow struggled to get off blocks when the Falcons played the 3-4 in certain instances last season. So many of his tackles were when the ball-carrier had already made it to the second level. A great player in his role would limit the gains by "stacking and shedding" his way to the back. Worrilow is a run-and-chase backer that is literally the same size as the safety William Moore.
This could be a problem.
Here's an example of the type of traffic an inside linebacker encounters. Worrilow is originally encounters the right guard who is getting to the second level.
Here Worrilow is completely engulfed by the fullback as the running back gets past the second level. There's a reason why you don't see too many 230-pound linebackers playing on the inside of an odd-front alignment. Former New York Jets' star backer Jonathan Vilma was traded by New York once he figured to be a schematic misfit when they transitioned from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Someone on this roster may very well face that same fate.
Akeem Dent (6'1", 239 lbs): Dent is another piece that best suited for a 4-3. Although, out of all the backers he's the most physical. It's mostly his lack of elite athleticism that holds him back. He will more than likely provide depth behind Worrilow.
Prototype: Brian Cushing (6'3", 250 lbs): Cushing has the perfect build, athleticism and disposition for the position. Covering tight ends in a prerequisite and Cushing does it as good as anyone.
It's imperative that the Falcons add a larger, more physical player to this part of the depth chart.
The outside linebacker position is the least talented, as presently constructed, on the defense. There's not a proven difference-maker, and when you couple that with a few potential scheme misfits you can plainly see the gravity of the situation. This is the reason why the brass must upgrade the talent through both the draft and free agency.
Both linebackers have to possess the ability to play in reverse as they will no longer only rush the passer.
University of Buffalo edge-rusher Khalil Mack seems to be the clubhouse leader, according to multiple media reports. Mack is an explosive talent who could play outside linebacker in an even- or odd-front scheme. UCLA's Anthony Barr would be perfect fit in the Falcons defense as well. He is better suited to play on the closed side of the formation where his length, and athleticism, makes him a great matchup for tight ends in coverage.
Weak-side Outside Linebacker (open end of the formation)
This position requires a player with elite pass-rush skills. He's schemed up to not have to deal with much outside of a tackle. This means he has to be able to rush from either side of the formation, which is harder than you think, as he will usually line up away from the tight end.
Osi Umenyiora ( 6'3", 255 lbs): Umenyiora is a natural defensive end in a 4-3. Watching him try to operate in 3-4 sets was cringeworthy at times last season. It's time for the Falcons to cut bait with the veteran.
Jonathan Massaquoi (6'2", 264 lbs): Massaquoi may benefit the most from the evolution in philosophy. He's a bit of a "tweener" in terms of what you look for in a hand-in-the-dirt end, but he's not quite the athlete that you look for in a two-point stance backer, either. "Mass" played away from the tight end in 3-4 sets last season.
Strong-side Outside Linebacker (Closed side of the formation)
This player has to be versatile as he will take on blocks from tight ends, cover tight ends and running backs in the flat and be charged with holding the point of attack allowing the inside backers/safeties to make plays against the run.
Kroy Biermann (6'3", 255 lbs): Biermann has been asked to play various roles in his career: rush the passer, cover tight ends and move around the formation. None of these roles have been performed at a high-level, which is why the Falcons can't afford to rely on him, as a starter, moving forward. But if they do, playing across from the tight end makes the most sense as he's performed that duty before.
Bartu should battle it out with him in camp for this role. Bartu, at 230 pounds, is entirely too small to go up against 320-pound linemen on a snap-by-snap basis, though. But he's a talented player that deserves a chance to win a job at the inside or outside linebacker position.
For the Falcons to truly get back to Falcon football, they need to transform one of the least productive units in the league into something very formidable. Acquiring a couple of 3-4 pieces is a nice start, but there's still a ton of work to be done for the transition to be complete. Expect more pieces to be added in the draft, at key positions, to create competition.
The Falcons' brass can't afford to see if a hodgepodge of parts will collectively get the job done as the time to win is now!
Rise up, Atlanta.