After a humiliating first round exit in the playoffs, the Falcons have lost both coordinators to other posts. This past offseason, former Defensive Coordinator Brian Van Gorder left Atlanta for a position under Gene Chizik at Auburn University. In his place the Falcons decided to hire one of the premier Defensive Coaches in the NFL, Mike Nolan. Nolan is a very successful DC, having transformed transformed average defenses into effective defensive units.
The Falcons Website gives this overview of Nolan's resume.
Nolan's previous escapades involve a Head Coaching position with the 49ers and most recently, the DC of the Dolphins. During his time in Miami, Nolan's Defense only allowed in 95.6 YPG rushing in 2011 (3rd in the NFL), while in 2010 the Dolphins Defense allowed 100 YPG rushing (7th in the NFL). In addition, last year the Dolphins accrued 41 Sacks (10th in the NFL), while surrendering 19.6 points per game (6th in the NFL).
One of the most respected defensive minds in the NFL, Nolan brings 14 years of experience as a coordinator and has spent a total of 25 years in the NFL coaching ranks. The Falcons mark the seventh team he has been a coordinator for over his coaching career: Miami (2010-11), Denver (2009), Baltimore (2002-04), the New York Jets (2000), Washington (1997-99) and the New York Giants (1993-96).
Primarily, Mike Nolan runs a 34 Defense, however, he will utilize the 43 Defense in Atlanta, in order to maintain some continuity.
Unlike the passive coverages and blitzes seen under Van Gorder, Mike Nolan employs a tenacious defense bent on pressuring the QB and overwhelming the offensive line. This involves blitzes from the LB corps, and coordination amongst the Front Seven. Nolan's aggressiveness leaves the secondary in some tight positions, relying on man coverage with safety blankets from the safeties. Thus with a solid secondary, Nolan is allowed to be more creative with his blitzes.
Rather than leaving the blitzes up to the defensive lineman Nolan typically includes 1-2 LB's in addition to the front four. Linebackers in Nolan's scheme typically are very athletic with good range, capable of blitzing the QB and staying home and stopping the run.
With the recent uptake in passing and 3-4 WR sets, as well as 2 TE sets, DC's like Nolan have had to make adjustments to counter opposing offenses. As such, Nolan has utilized a formation called the 'Big Nickel'. The 'Big Nickel' has 4 down linemen, with 2 LB's, and 5 DB's (2 CB's and 3 S's, hence the moniker). The extra safety is typically a Strong Safety, capable covering a WR or TE, yet is also large/strong enough to make an impact in run defense. In recent years, other teams such as the Giants have operated the 'Big Nickel'; especially during their recent playoff run, helping to slow down the Pats' TE duo in Super Bowl XLVI.
If you would like to learn a little more about the 'Big Nickel' check out this article written by NFL.com's Pat Kirwan
After fielding a playoff team the last two seasons, the Falcons Defense is stocked with talent.
The Defensive Line is anchored by veteran sack master John Abraham, bookended by Ray Edwards, who experienced a down season in 2011. In reserve the Falcons have Lawrence Sidbury and rookie Jonathan Massaquoi At DT, the Falcons have Jonathan Babineaux, a solid run stopper with adequate pass rushing ability, along with a rotation of Peria Jerry and rookies Micanor Regis and Travian Robertson, who'll lineup next to starter Corey Peters. Recent history points to a weak pass rush from the Falcons, however, under Nolan we should expect to see better production and stats in 2012.
The LB corps lost a talented player in Curtis Lofton, however the talent level of the LB's combined with Nolan's expertise should see that success in 2012. Sean Weatherspoon is very athletically gifted, and with additional blitzing under Mike Nolan, could be poised for a big season. After Weatherspoon, the Falcons have ILB's Stephen Nicholas and Lofa Tatupu, as well as a plethora of depth.
The Falcons' Secondary is also talented, with lockdown corner Brent Grimes, and recently acquired Asante Samuel manning the starting spots, along with Dunta Robinson at nickel back and Dominique Franks as the dime back. Grimes can be trusted in man coverage, as can Samuel. Vet Thomas Decoud is the established FS, capable of making plays, while William Moore is the starting SS. Also of note, the Falcons recently signed former Pro Bowl FS Chris Hope. Hope, if healthy, could be used to spare Decoud, or see playing time in the 'Big Nickel'.
I expect that the Falcons Defense will take a major step forward and cement themselves as the best defense in the NFC South. The experience level of the defense, and simple terminology of Nolan's defense, will likely prevent growing pains as the Defense adapts to Nolan's scheme. The Falcons could be primed for a big year in 2012.