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The 2014 Atlanta Falcons Defense Will Be Primarily Nickel

A post-OTA breakdown of what lies ahead for the Atlanta defense.

Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons have done backflips to obfuscate their intentions regarding the front seven all offseason, with Mike Smith in particular talking about hybrid fronts, 4-3 fronts and pretending that acquiring players like Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai didn't signal a fundamental shift in the way the team planned to organize their defensive line going forward.

Well, today Mike Smith said this:

In practical terms, this is utterly meaningless. Falcons fans made fun of Smitty, as they are wont to do, and we moved on. Except that Smith also said this, per Daniel Cox at the mothership:

"Our outside linebackers put their hand in the ground when we’re in the sub defense. Our sub defense is our base defense because we play it 65 percent of the snaps. We want one voice. They’re hearing one voice so that’s why we coached our coaching style in a different way."

Obviously, this is an important quote. Smith is taking the time to point out that nickel is the team's most-utilized package and therefore what he considers the base for the defense, something the Falcons have been overly coy about before now. He's still refusing to say the Falcons will run more 3-4 when they're not in the nickel, but hey, baby steps.

There's three things to take away here, in no particular order.

  1. I've referred to the 3-4 defense as the "base" several times thus far in 2014, but every time I also point out the Falcons are likely to run more nickel. So why is it the base?

    Because it's the package the Falcons will likely use on clear running downs, especially first and second downs. If we're going by the package the Falcons will use the most as the base, then the 3-4 is emphatically not going to be the base by the definition Smitty is using. If it's the default package for first downs, which is the potentially archaic/stupid definition I use, then it's the base. The nickel is the sub package, albeit the most used package.
  2. The obvious follow-up is, if the 3-4 won't be the most utilized package, why acquire guys like Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson? 

    The answer goes back to the way the Falcons have elected to change their core identity this offseason. The Falcons, in their nickel looks, likely won't use four down lineman all the time, and perhaps not even frequently. As Scott Carasik noted, you could see a lot more 3-3-5 or even 2-4-5 looks when the nickel defense is on the field, and that's a direct consequence of having more big bodies up front to occupy blockers. You can afford to put more defensive backs and linebackers on the field if the 600 pounds of giant human can take 3-4 offensive linemen out of play.
  3. The nickel back remains critically important, and it's not clear yet who the fifth defensive back is going to be in these sets. It could be Robert McClain again, yes, but it could be Josh Wilson, Javier Arenas, Dezmen Southward or (and this is a stretch) Kemal Ishmael. I don't think McClain has that job sewn up by a long shot.
So there's your takeaway: The Falcons will show a ton of nickel looks once more under Mike Nolan, but the way they set up their front seven in those packages may change, and they're still going to run more 3-4 when as a base when they're not utilizing five defensive backs. Basically, this is the same thing we've been talking about for many months, just confirmed by Smitty and with a feisty affirmation of a lot of nickel looks.