On paper, the Atlanta Falcons’ defense last year was quality. They got to the quarterback just 33 times but still pressured signal callers a significant amount and were good against the run. However, in crucial situations that aren’t always measured by the numbers, the Falcons appeared to be lacking. They weren’t unable to come up with the big stop at times and it hurt them, so after defensive coordinator Brian VanGoerder left, they brought in the aggressive Mike Nolan.
Nolan brings a dynamic defense to the Falcons, utilizing various fronts including both the 3-4 and 4-3. The Falcons front consisted primarily of four defensive linemen last year, but now that’s likely to change a bit. Nolan doesn’t hesitate to go to three-man fronts, as he did with the Dolphins last year, and then turn to the four-man front on passing downs.
According to a January report by Brad Biggs at The National Football Post, Nolan will keep the Falcons 4-3 defense intact, citing that the “track” of the defense has been a “good one.” Because of his experience in the 4-3 front and the very few differences between it and the 3-4 front, it isn’t a surprise that Nolan chose to stay with the Falcons base defense from last season. However, as Nolan stated, he might suggest tweaks to the front: “If I felt like it could easily be tweaked to get to something else because I felt it could be better, I would obviously suggest it.”
What this obviously means is that Nolan will apply his blueprint to the defense to further improve it in his mind, which could mean that the defensive linemen could see more 2-gap assignments instead of the primarily 1-gap assignments they played last season. Nolan did this with the Dolphins last season, and with the Broncos when he was the defensive coordinator in Denver. His 2-gap concepts came out of head-up and shaded defensive alignments, with the latter labeled a “heavy” 2-gap technique.
Nolan is also likely to bring more blitzes out of sub-packages to Atlanta. He uses a significant amount of sub-packages, meaning nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) personnel, and often sends defensive backs downhill.
An example of this was seen against the Oakland Raiders last season when quarterback Carson Palmer was taken down on a blitz from the boundary, which is the short side of the field.
On this play, the Dolphins came out in their 40 Nickel sub-package, meaning they had a front with four defensive linemen and a linebacker subbed out for a defensive back, making it five total defensive backs.
As expected, Nolan called a blitz into the headset of the MIKE (middle) linebacker, and it was the ever-popular Fire Zone blitz. This blitz can have any combination of five defensive players coming downhill and up to six defenders dropping in coverage.
In this case, Nolan’s five rushers were the boundary (short side of the field) cornerback, the strong-side (based off of the tight end) linebacker and the defensive end, and the two interior tackles. The weak-side, back-side end dropped in coverage to join the other five zone defenders.
At the snap, the weak-side end dropped into coverage while the two interior tackles “long-sticked” to the near gap and the strong-side defensive end (top of the screen) executed a contained, C-gap rush that widened the tackle. The rushes of the two interior tackles were done to force the interior blockers to slide their protection away from the top of the screen so the blitzing strong-side linebacker can have a direct, downhill path to the quarterback.
The wide rush of the defensive end at the top of the screen widened the offensive tackle to create a blitz path for the boundary corner. If the blitz works, the defense ends up forcing the tailback to decide who to block between the blitzing middle linebacker and the defensive back.
As the linebacker blitzes, the back looks to pick him up and so does the center, creating a 2-on-1 matchup for the offense. This seems like an ideal scenario for the offense because they have a combination block, but that’s not the case because the RB never sees his true assignment: the boundary blitzer who ends up freely sacking Palmer.
Nolan may have issues adjusting his gameplan at half-time if it doesn’t always go according to plan, but he’s never short on blitzes.
Nolan carries a significant amount of blitzes into games and he does a good job of calling for them at the right times. I expect his blitz packages out of nickel and dime personnel to continue in Atlanta as he tries to take down quarterbacks Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Josh Freeman.