The ambiguity of the Atlanta Falcons' brass, in reference to their defensive unit, have left many befuddled as to exactly how the defense will be stylized henceforth. Some writers were fed a bill of goods when it was evident all along that Atlanta was on its way to a scheme evolution -- as yours truly noted prior to all the confusion.
The Falcons themselves didn't do anyone favors by continuing to lean on the fact that they will be multiple in their approach. But anyone who genuinely knows the game of football could see through that proclamation like glass.
This isn't 1941; every defense in the NFL is multiple in its philosophy.
But one thing that all the great defenses have in common in this day and age is "direction."
Teams like the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens have all determined their approach, acquired personnel off said approach and matched that guide to their scheme -- for the past few seasons.
Atlanta's erratic proclamations mirrored its approach. But whether you believe the Falcons still have a ways to go to truly compete, as I thoroughly expressed as a guest on a recent Falcfans.com podcast, or you're sold that they will hoist the Lombardi Trophy next season, we can all come to the conclusion that this current regime finally has a crystal clear direction...even if it refuses to say so.
THE FRONT 7
Every offseason, that ends in disappointment, is usually attached to a theme. The most notable example was in 2010-11 playoffs when the Green Bay Packers, and their kamikaze-like offense, came into the Georgia Dome and dished out a butt whippin' of epic proportions. Atlanta's response was to be more "explosive," so that it could match the likes of the Packers and Saints -- who could win virtually on offense alone.
Fast forward to present day.
We've all heard it a million times in the past five months; the Falcons wanted to get "tougher." Owner Arthur Blank demanded it, and the staff went out and delivered (in its own way, of course). It seems as though tougher was code for "bigger," as virtually every piece of personnel acquired was of the larger variety. Giving way to the fact that an odd-front defense was definitely in the making -- regardless of what was being said.
Make no mistake about it; The Falcons have already integrated plenty of 3-4-based elements in their defense.
Here's my projected depth chart with the Falcons lined up in a 3-4-based alignment. This is purely speculation based off my analysis if each individual player's skill set.
The Falcons decided to go out and add a few large bodies via free agency and the draft to bolster their line. Fans around social media are beginning to go overboard by proclaiming the Falcons will not be run on with the additions of Paul Soliai (6'4", 340 lbs), Tyson Jackson (6'4", 296 lbs) and Ra'Shede Hageman (6'6", 310 lbs).
Both Soliai and Jackson come from units that were large across the board -- that also gave up 4.1 (18th) and 4.5 (26th) yards per attempt, respectively. Having a large front doesn't automatically guarantee any type of success. The league is littered with larger 3-4-based fronts that get gashed on a regular basis.
The rest of the defense has to be capable as well. One hand washes the other; both wash the face.
Soliai: His presence will be felt in the running game, there's no doubt about it. He's capable of taking on and defeating blocks. But he will also be schemed against in both the run and pass game.
Here we see what we will undoubtedly witness a lot of in 2014. Teams will stretch Soliai out in an attempt to test his athleticism opposed to his strength. Soliai also doesn't add much value as far as the pass-rush. Expect a lot of passing on early downs, up-tempo offenses, draw and stretch plays.
When you're as big as him, getting tired is inevitable. The Falcons need to have a plan to rotate him as often as possible.
Corey Peters (6'3", 305 lbs): Peters is a really good player. He may not have the size of Soliai, but he's a better all-around player. For a multi-faceted scheme to really be effective, the players need to be versatile as well. Peters will play the 0-technique, as he did when the Falcons lined up the 3-4 last season, but he will be the best one-gap penetrator, in even-front alignments, out of all the interior linemen.
Although Peters is lined up at the nose, he was still deployed as a "gap shooter." His keen instincts are very apparent; he sniffs out the screen pass -- and blows it up. Don't sleep on this guy's talent.
Jonathan Babineaux (6'2", 300 lbs): Babs is a steady, heady veteran. He may not be quite the pass-rusher he once was, but he's pretty much solid in all aspects of football. Expect him to start at the 5-technique and spend time a the 3-techinque in sub.
Hageman: Fans are putting a lot of pressure on Ra'Shede as far as hype goes. The reality of it is he generated only two sacks total -- his senior season -- and had a season-high of six tackles. While his combination of size and athleticism is rare, he lacks the type of motor that could separate him from the rest. He will, though, receive every opportunity to succeed in Atlanta. His best bet may be to play the 5-technique and slide over to the "3' in sub (occasionally).
Malliciah Goodman (6'4", 276 lbs): It will be interesting to see exactly where Goodman fits in the scheme. He's a bit of a tweener, but could prove his worth penetrating from a 3-technique. I have very little faith in his ability to hold up on the edges, though.
Peria Jerry (6'2", 295 lbs): Jerry has become a bit of a pariah for supporters of the Red and Black. He has not lived up to his status as a first-round pick -- although he had a solid season last year. He was cut and then brought back, so his spot is not guaranteed. He is versatile enough to play the 3- and 5-techinque.
Cliff Matthews (6'4", 268 lbs): Matthews, so far in his two seasons, has been a J.A.G. (just another guy). His time may very well be up when camp breaks.
The off-the-ball linebackers in a three-man front are immensely important in the grand scheme of it all. Without the benefit of being "covered up," like the backers are in a 4-3-based defense, these players must take on blocks to get to ball-carriers. So having the ability to stack and shed defenders is paramount. These players also have the unenviable task of covering tight ends as well.
Paul Worrilow (6'0", 230 lbs): I steadfastly remain behind the notion that an odd-front alignment doesn't suit Worrilow's strengths. He best fits a 4-3 as he has the ability to roam and make tackles. He showed a propensity for getting caught on blocks and struggling to disengage.
This is a very damning sequence. Worrilow has a chance to limit this gain by defeating the block, but he chooses to skirt his way around the block and doesn't come close to making the play. This is not an indictment of Worrilow's toughness or ability. It's just an innate style of play that some have and some don't.
Take it from someone who was forced to play inside linebacker, when strong safety was my natural position, defeating blocks is extremely hard to learn. Some players are just run-and-chase linebackers.
Here's another example:
Instead of "scraping" his way to the ball-carrier, Worrilow decides to take the path of least resistance. The next example shows just how good Worrilow could be in a system that takes advantage of his strengths.
Although Worrilow piled up a significant amount of tackles, as a rookie, a great deal of them were what an old coach of mine liked to call "after-the-fact tackles." Here we see Worrilow making the type of play Falcons fans want to see more of. He navigates, uncovered, and stops the play for no-gain.
Sean Weatherspoon (6'2", 244 lbs): "Spoon" is the best linebacker on the team. Although his best fit is in a 4-3, his tenacity and athleticism makes him a fit in any scheme. The only thing that can stop him is injuries. He'll play the weak-side inside linebacker to take advantage of his sideline-to-sideline skills.
Joplo Bartu (6'2", 230 lbs): Bartu is the most versatile player on the team. He can play any off-the-ball linebacker position, and he can also fill in at strong-side outside linebacker. If given the chance, he will produce.
Akeem Dent (6'1", 239 lbs): A source close to the situation told me that Dent is the best "thumper" on the squad. It may be his lack of elite athleticism that holds him back.
Marquis Spruill (6'1", 224 lbs): Spruill is an exciting prospect in the mold of Bartu. Both are undersized but versatile. If Spruill's speed is as advertised (4.53 40-yard dash at the Syracuse Pro Day), he could find himself playing in sub rather quickly.
Yawin Smallwood (6'2", 246 lbs): Smallwood won't wow anyone with his athleticism, much like Dent, but he has a nose for the ball. He may have to first make his mark on special teams, though.
The Falcons didn't really add personnel with any specificity to an odd-based alignment, but they do have talent at the position. It's now up to the staff to make it work.
It's very rare that you find an odd-based scheme with very little talent on the edges. The New York Jets may be the only team without a dynamic edge presence that still has the ability to stifle offenses. But even with that said, they had two players achieve double-digit sacks: Uber-talented 5-technique Muhammad Wilkerson (10.5), as well as veteran outside linebacker Calvin Pace (10).
Going into the draft, it can be argued that the Falcons needed a pass-rusher more than anything else on the roster. Veteran defensive end Osi Umenyiora, and his 7.5 sacks, is the edge-rusher with the most skins on the wall.
Now that's scary...
Jonathan Massaquoi (6'2", 264 lbs): "J-Mass" may be the most important player on the defense. It appears as though the Falcons are leaning on him making significant progress after his 4.0-sack performance last season. Massaquoi has the ability to make his presence felt in both the run and pass game.
Here's the type of work Falcons fans can expect from "J-Mass." He has the ability to "fly off" on the edges, and he can also do the gritty work lined up closer to the formation. He has the ability to chain together moves as well. Atlanta may very well have the answer to its pass-rush woes already firmly entrenched in its roster.
Osi Umenyiora (6'3", 255 lbs): Umenyiora had a disappointing initial season in Atlanta. Four of his sacks came against rookies Mike Glennon and Geno Smith, with another coming against second-year man Ryan Tannehill. Atlanta needs an explosive weak-side rusher that can dominate anyone in his path...similar to former star player John Abraham!
Kroy Biermann (6'3", 255 lbs): Still waiting for this fan favorite to live up to the hype. He's billed as a versatile, savvy athlete with the ability to make game-changing plays. This has to be the season he puts it all together, or he may follow Umenyiora out the door. Expect Biermann to play on the closed side of the formation where he will match up with tight ends and backs coming out of the backfield.
Prince Shembo (6'2", 258 lbs): Shembo has the size, stack-and-shed ability and motor to make serious noise at inside linebacker...but the Falcons will ultimately play him on the edges where he has average pass-rush ability.
Tyler Starr and Stansly Maponga will prove depth, but overall this is still least talented unit on the defense. Fans will be in for a rude awakening thinking that larger bodies generates sacks. A great pass-rusher is a standalone talent. The New York Giants could generate a rush with defensive ends occupying the interior, in their NASCAR package, because each player was that talented (sans Umenyiora! I'm kidding...sort of).
Going into the offseason it was clear that free safety and nickel back needed to be a point of emphasis. Coming out of the offseason it's clear that free safety and nickel back will be the weak link of the secondary.
Desmond Trufant (6'0", 190 lbs): As advertised. Trufant is an ultra-competitive corner who is adept at both zone and man coverage. He had a very solid season as a rookie and will need to continue to improve as the linchpin of the secondary. Hopefully the coaching staff moves him to left cornerback, or allows him to shadow the opposing team's most significant threat.
Robert Alford (5'10", 186 lbs): Alford has all the tools to be a perfect complement to Trufant, but he must work on consistency in his technique -- as most young players do. He has the versatility to slide over to nickel in certain packages and is a pretty solid tackler.
Robert McClain (5'9", 195 lbs): Two seasons ago McClain looked like an uncovered gem. Last season he probably couldn't cover my neighbor Jim (no disrespect to you, Jim). It's imperative that McClain returns to form as the Falcons will face some of the very best passing offenses in the league this season.
Javier Arenas (5'9", 197 lbs): Arenas looked to be a future star at the University of Alabama, the best program in college football, but his pro career has been a major disappointment. He's an excellent blitzer who may find a role in the manufactured-pressure schemes.
Josh Wilson (5'9", 188 lbs): Wilson is a great athlete (4.3 40-yard dash), but his football skills, often, leave a lot to be desired. He's had his moments, though. He has good ball-skills and is lights out with the ball in his hands. Here's hoping he finally reaches his potential.
William Moore (6'0", 220 lbs): Moore is the best player in the secondary and a tone-setter for the entire defense. Expect big things from him this season. "I want a 10-pick season under my belt before my career is over," Moore told me in a conversation. He's been working extremely hard to make that type of an impact. He's ready!
Dwight Lowery (5'11", 212 lbs): Lowery is not an upgrade over former starter Thomas DeCoud, but he's more of a scheme fit as he's better in man coverage -- as he was a initially a corner in the NFL. He's more physical, but lacks the ball-skills of a DeCoud. He's solid in the tackling department.
Dezmen Southward (6'0", 211 lbs): Going into the draft process there were literally eight safeties most fans clamored for -- and none of them were named Dezmen Southward. To his credit he's an athletic player, but the NFL is filled with good athletes that have failed to make an impact.
Southward generated a paltry two interceptions, with one literally being a gift, his entire four years at Wisconsin and generally failed to show NFL-caliber ball-skills. In the above sequence, Southward is in a role he will undoubtedly see whenever he unseats Lowery at free safety -- man coverage in the slot.
The receiver exposes his lack of proper technique by devouring the cushion and "eating up his press." Southward didn't have the necessary change-of-direction skills to recover on this out route. He's not an overly physical player, either. But his speed, and size, gives him chance to compete. It's up to the Falcons' staff to develop his game...
Did the Falcons make the necessary changes in personnel to move into the upper-echelon of NFL defenses?
But they do have a legit business plan to build off of now. The next couple of years may in fact see a paradigm shift with the Falcons doing good work on the defensive side of the ball. But when you have an offense as talented as Atlanta's, the defense needs to just create turnovers and get out of the way.
Rise up, Atlanta.
Murf Baldwin covers the Alabama Crimson Tide for Roll 'Bama Roll in addition to being a staff writer for The Falcoholic. He previously covered the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints for Bleacher Report. Are you not entertained? Follow Murf on Twitter.