INDIANAPOLIS — Falcons head coach Mike Smith spoke with the media at the NFL scouting combine on Saturday morning.
Some of the highlights: Ray Edwards had another knee surgery after the season, he’ll stay out of the John Abraham negotiations and he believes that Mike Mularkey will do a great job in Jacksonville.
Q: Where are you all at in the offseason process as you are looking at the players at the NFL scouting combine?
A: First, I beg to differ when talking about the offseason. It think it’s the non-game playing season. Just like for you guys, you haven’t had an offseason yet. We are in the process, like all teams, of building our roster and it starts with free agency. We’ve been through the evaluation process. [We’ve looked at] not only the free agents on our football team, but the free agents across the league. Then the second step is to start the negotiating process. That is something that is going on with the members of our team. When free agency opens . . . [we’ll be ready] like the rest of the teams. We’re here today watching the college guys, the offensive linemen working out. We are looking forward to putting our team together.
Q: Will you get involved in the John Abraham negotiations?
A: I don’t get involved in all of that. All of the guys on our [team] that are free agents . . . have been integral to the success that we’ve had over the last four years. You have to rebuild your team each and every year. Of course, we’d like to keep all of our guys, but you know that the way the process works in this league, it doesn’t happen that way. Each and every year the dynamics are different. You have to build a team for 2012 and that’s what we are trying to do right now.
Q: How is it going with getting all of your new coaches acclimated to Flowery Branch?
A: First, I want to congratulate Mike Mularkey and his opportunity to become the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. I know that Mike will do a great job there. He was an integral part of the success that we’ve had in Atlanta. But there is an evolution process that goes on in the National Football League. Each and every year there are going to be changes. . . I’m very excited about the additions that we’ve added to our staff. The defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has 14 years as a coordinator and almost 25 years in the National Football League. He’ll be a great resource for me. He’s been a former head coach. I worked with Mike [Nolan] in Baltimore. He’s been successful where ever he’s been. I’m looking forward to presenting a blank canvass so to speak for him, to look at our players and build a defense that will allow our players to be the most successful. Dirk Koetter joins us as the offensive coordinator. Dirk and I worked in Jacksonville for one season, the year that we went to the second round of the playoffs. Dirk is a guy that I have a lot of respect for.
Q: With teams using more sub-defenses, does that change what you look for in defensive players?
A: I think it most certainly does. The game has become more of a spacing game. There are more spread sets. The nickel back over the last four years for us has actually played more snaps than our third linebacker. So a five DB set and even now, more so, you’re seeing six DBs and seven DBs out on the field. That does change things. One of the things that Mike [Nolan] and I talked about when he was joining our staff, was that you’ve got to play to get them to third down. That’s when, for an offensive coach and a defensive coach, it really becomes fun. You’ve got to get them into those third down situations and that’s when you get into situational football. That’s where the game is really played.
Q: When you are in a sub package so frequently, how important is it now to look for a dominant pass rushing defensive end who can disrupt things and help the secondary?
A: That is very important. You saw the team that won the Super Bowl this year and the way that they rotated their defensive line. It’s not always necessarily the sacks that are produced. It’s the pressure that’s put on the quarterback and getting him uncomfortable. The pass rush is very important [to help you] win on third down. Then you’ve got to be able to have guys that can match up with the talented wide receivers and tight ends that are playing in this league right now.
Q: Is there more of a premium on that type of defensive player?
A: Well, I think at the core, you have to control the line of scrimmage. At times you’re going to have to be able to run the football. I think that was evident at the end of the season with the run that the Super Bowl champs had. Even though during the season, statistically they weren’t one of the best running teams. Through the playoffs they were one of the top running teams. You’re going to have to control the line of scrimmage. Whether if that is running the football or throwing the football, it really is going to be dictated on how people are going to try to defend you.
Q: With teams in nickel or dime, 60 to 70 percent of the time, does that evolved into the base defense?
A: Yeah, when we talk about changes and evolution, you can basically almost say right now that your base defense is . . . your [nickel] package. There are more teams playing with six- and seven-defensive backs. You see that more frequently now.
Q: Can you give us an example of what Mike Mularkey did to help Matt Ryan and how that will translate to helping with Blaine Gabbert in Jacksonville?
A: Mike did a great job with Matt Ryan. Matt has a very good skill set, but Mike helped develop Matt especially in our no-huddle offense. We were able to implement that very early on. It became an integral part of what we’ve done over the last four years. Actually, the first time we did it was the second ball game of Matt Ryan’s career. Mike Mularkey and the offensive staff was a big part of that. They were able to implement it, simplify it and compartmentalize it to where we could take it and operate efficiently and effectively very early on.
Q: Is there more pressure on you all now with that 55th pick?
A: I don’t think there is any more pressure in terms of the pick. When you are picking early I think you have a little bit more focus on what is going to be available when you get beyond the 15th pick, some years the 20th pick. When you get into that second round there are a lot more players that may fit into that range. I don’t think there’s any more pressure. What we have to do is our due diligence as a coaching staff and as a scouting staff to make sure that we’ve identified the guys that are going to be available at 55.
Q: Could you talk about the development of linebacker Curtis Lofton?
A: In his first year, he was a two-down linebacker and did not play in our sub-package. The last three years, he’s been a very important cog in our defense on all three downs. He has definitely been the leader of our defense and signal-caller. He’s done a very nice job. Curtis is a very active middle linebacker in terms off his ability to play both the run and the pass. He’s one of the leading tacklers. He’s really developed into a top-level linebacker.
Q: What’s going to be your short yardage strategy going forward? Are you going to remain aggressive?
A: We are going to remain very aggressive. Unfortunately, it’s been well documented that on fourth down we were not as efficient as we needed to be. In the first three years we were. I still have a strong belief in short-yardage and that you should be able to convert. Unfortunately, we didn’t. When it doesn’t work, it’s not a good call. When it works, it’s a great call.
Q: Is there anything in particular that you all can look at in the short-yardage packages?
A: Believe me we do a critical analysis of everything that we do. Fourth down-and-1 was at the top of my list this season, I can assure you.
Q: In light of Grimes’ pending free agency, how did the young corners, Dominique Franks and Christopher Owens, handle the extra playing time down the stretch of the season?
A: Our young corners had to play at the end of the season. Dominique Franks did a nice job. He played our nickel, our fifth [defensive back] and he got a lot of experience. Christopher Owens, because of injuries, had to play as well. Those guys got some experience this season. I think it’s very important as you build a team to get as many guys involved as possible. We did that some by injury and some because of the level of play of the guys in front of them.
Q: (Inaudible: Something on mobile quarterbacks.)
A: I don’t think that they are taking more mobile quarterbacks. I think that what happens is that the feeder system [to] the NFL is producing more mobile quarterbacks, that’s the trend. First and foremost in the National Football League you look for a quarterback that can throw the football. He has to make great decisions. He has to be very accurate with his throws because the skill level of the defenders is very good.
Q: How did [safety] James Sanders play for the Falcons last season?
A: James is one of the 17 free agents that we have. He was a very good addition. [He was] a solid addition for our secondary with his experience. Even though he was a young player, I think he’s in his late 20s, we got him late. He was a guy that joined our football team right before the season started. There was an acclimation period, but when he got a chance to play he performed well. He was a stabilizing factor in our secondary. I really like his makeup and his skill set as a guy that can play both strong and free safety.
Q: How important is it to have versatile defensive linemen?
A: The versatility of all of our players is very important. Corey Peters, of all of the guys was probably the biggest surprise. He was a third round pick out of the University of Kentucky who came in and has played very well for us. He can play both the nose tackle and the three-technique. With our new defensive coordinator I know that we are going to be very multiple in what we do and you want to have players that can line up in different positions. You want to have them across the board. Corey is a guy who can play a number of positions on the defensive front.
Q: How important is it to re-sign special teamer Eric Weems?
A: It will be very important to get all of our guys. I’m not putting any pressure on the people who are doing the negotiations, but Eric Weems has had two outstanding years. He had a Pro Bowl year last year as a special teams player. He is a guy who can fill in [at wide receover.] He is an outstanding special teams player. Not just as a returner, but he’s a guy who will cover punts. This is a young man that has played almost very special teams snap that we’ve had over the last four years.
Q: How did Michael Turner play in the running game for you all last year?
A: I thought Michael had another good year. He’s had two seasons of 1,300 yards or more. I think the thing that we have to do, as Michael gets older, is that we have to start putting him on a pitch-count in terms of his number of carries. Michael has, over the last four years, has been a guy that’s had over three hundred carries. I think it’s very important and we have guys in place [to help out.] . . . Jacquizz Rodgers, who we drafted as change-of-pace back, can help. We found out very quickly that he’s a guy who can play on all three downs. He does a very good job with his blocking. That was one of the things we were concerned about. He’s not a little guy, he’s just a short guy. In terms of Michael, we want to keep him as our feature back but we definitely need to make sure that we get some of the other guys some carries as well.
Q: How important is it to have the change of pace or complimentary back?
A: I think it’s very important. The wear and tear that a running back faces in the National Football League is unbelievable. You’ve got to have guys that can stay fresh and try to penetrate the defensive line. That’s something that both Michael, Jacquizz and Jason Snelling were able to do for us last year.
Q: Could you attribute Ray Edwards’ struggles to the knee injury last season?
A: Ray Edwards, I thought did a very good job for us [against] the run. There was a stretch in the season that he had an issue with his knee. He had a procedure done with his knee. We’re expecting him to be back at full health.
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog