Earlier this offseason, Vaughn McClure at ESPN reported on the possibility of a 3-4 base defense in 2014 for the Falcons. This was a possibility that met with a potent mixture of excitement and skepticism, eventually kicking off a fairly fierce debate about whether the Falcons already ran a lot of 3-4 and whether anything would even change.
Fast forward a couple of months and McClure's report has been all but officially validated. The Falcons acquired no 4-3 ends, signed or drafted multiple linemen who are a good fit in the 3-4 and picked up four linebackers who have skill sets friendly for 3-4 sets. Even holdouts have to acknowledge that this team is likely to run more 3-4 looks, and is much better equipped to do so than in the past. For those like Murf Baldwin who have been forecasting a 3-4 for months, it's a nice moment of vindication.
The question on all our minds is whether this is going to work better. The Falcons realized a change needed to be made after finishing as a bottom ten unit in 2013, and they were by most metrics the worst or second-worst run defense in the entire NFL. McClure thinks there's a real shot:
Think of it more as the Falcons building toward a 5-2 alignment, with three linemen and two outside linebackers getting pressure. As long as the Falcons can do so with consistency, they'll be fine.
The Falcons hope that having heavy hitters up front will create more stress on opposing offensive linemen and open lanes for the linebackers to make plays. And if he develops quickly, Hageman has the potential to be an outstanding inside rusher and a J.J. Watt-type pass-deflector. He is the wild card in this whole equation. He'll be motivated by fiery defensive line coach Bryan Cox.
He specifically calls out Jonathan Massaquoi, Prince Shembo and Stansly Maponga as pass rushers in the new scheme, but the important note is in his second paragraph. The Falcons are hoping to augment a group that doesn't inspire huge confidence on first blush by putting them in a position to succeed, and frankly it almost has to work better than what the team has already tried.
Saying that the Falcons will continue to run hybrid fronts is accurate, of course, and the team runs so much nickel under Mike Nolan that you're not necessarily going to see three down linemen all the time. I refer to a 3-4 as the base because it's the defense the Falcons are likely to use for the average first and second downs. Reader DnY introduced the idea of the Falcons running a "Big Nickel" 3-3-5 set featuring rookie safety Dezmen Southward as the third safety as the true base—i.e. the one the Falcons use most often—and it's both an intriguing and likely meritorious idea.
The bottom line is that the Falcons' defensive line is no longer going to be the light, athletic front it was for large portions of the last six seasons. It's going to be big bodies most of the time, a welcome change for one of the worst run defenses in the NFL in 2013. If McClure is right and the Falcons get a decent pass rush out of the new acquisitions and re-aligning of personnel, I think we'll all be happy with the shift.
What do you envision the Falcons' 3-4 defense looking like in 2014?