Atlanta Falcons: Nolan is playing chess with defensive pieces

FLOWERY BRANCH — When the Falcons walk into Mike Nolan’s defensive meeting room, there is a certain excitement coupled with a heavy dose of uncertainty.

The players usually look forward to seeing what kind of exotic game plan the defensive coordinator has cooked up for the week’s opponent.

“It’s always kind of fun and I think, more importantly, the players like it because it puts them in position sometimes they haven’t been since they were little kids,” Nolan said. “They like feeling like they are making a difference during the game.”

Since taking over, Nolan has moved his players around like grandmaster Bobby Fischer use to slide around his chess pieces.

While the Falcons are not one of the top-ranked units in the NFL, they have claimed victories over Denver’s Peyton Manning, San Diego’s Philip Rivers, Carolina’s Cam Newton, Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Philadelphia’s Michael Vick.

Nolan has used a variety of defenses and position changes to help the unit thrive. The Falcons rank 26th against the run (136.4 yards per game), 10th against the pass (216.9) and 20th overall (353.3).

The number the unit likes to point to is its opponents’ scoring average of 18.6 per game, which ranks seventh in the league. Also, the Falcons rank fourth in the league with a plus-10 turnover differential.

Against Denver, Nolan had the defense create false looks that forced Manning into throwing into coverage. The strategy led to three interceptions.

Against Griffin and Vick, he used players to spy on the quarterback. They held Griffin to 7 yards and Vick to 42 yards rushing.

Some of his player moves have included Kroy Biermann playing end, linebacker and sometimes dropping deep down the field in coverage, in a safety-like position.

He also flip flops defensive end John Abraham, but the Falcons were also doing that under former coordinator Brian VanGorder.

The players do seem to get a kick out of their varied assignments.

“It’s fun,” said Abraham, who’s in his 13th season. “We have people who can do stuff and coach is putting them in position. I can play end and I can play linebacker if I wanted to, but he wants me coming around the corner. He likes that I can rush the passer, so I’m going to let him do that.”

Against the Eagles, he used three defensive tackles, with Jonathan Babineaux playing defensive end.

“It’s more of a collective thing other than just somebody telling you to be in your spot,” said Abraham, who’s off to a fast start with seven sacks after posting 9.5 last season. “If I can’t do it, we have somebody else to do it. We have everybody working together.

“He’s playing to people’s strengths and talent. He using stuff that people can do. Like you can’t tell me to take on a double-team every time. That’s kind of pointless, right? But hey, we have a big guy like Babineaux, so let him do that.”

And that’s just fine with Babineaux.

“Honestly, I think playing end is easier than tackle,” Babineaux said. “You’ve got more meat in the middle than you do at the end position. It’s a little bit easier for me, and I guess in the long run, it’s going to help me be a better player.”

Most players are creatures of habit and would resist such a drastic move.

“The coaches feel comfortable with me playing end, so I’m with it,” Babineaux said. “I don’t have any problem with it, as long as I’m out there being productive and helping my team, I’m good with playing that position.”

The Cowboys plan to account for Abraham, no matter which side he’s rushing from.

“It’s amazing how it seems like the guy never ages every year when you see him on tape,” Dallas quarterback Tony Romo said.

Nolan has been able to diversity his looks so much because the secondary has covered much better with the addition of cornerback Asante Samuel.

“There’s no real drop off,” Romo said. “He’s still a guy who creates a lot of plays for his defense. I was a little bit surprised obviously when he was let go. We’ve got to account for him with stuff in the pass game.”

The players like Nolan’s calculated approach to taking risks.

“He’s real aggressive, real offensive with his calls,” veteran linebacker Mike Peterson said. “He’s definitely one of the coaches that tailors the defense to the players, definitely.”

The players like Nolan’s flexibility.

“I’ve played with a couple guys that have been that way,” Peterson said. “I think you see it a little more with him because we have a bunch of guys that have been together for a while. You can say, ‘This is the coverage we are going to play’ but you have got leeway with it because we have guys that have been around and know football.”


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55 comments Add your comment


November 3rd, 2012
5:53 am


November 3rd, 2012
5:57 am

Fun to watch too


November 3rd, 2012
6:25 am

Just ask him about Sibury and Matthews…..


November 3rd, 2012
6:38 am

I don’t think Ray Edwards has been in the mix, other than rotating to keep players fresh. Because when his name is called he doesn’t consistently make plays. D- Led ask Nolan where Ray Edwards fits in this scheme and how productive he’s been this year as a player.


November 3rd, 2012
6:54 am

Everyone talks about Ryan never winning a playoff game….well Ryan never had Dirk Koetter or Mike Nolan as coaches…this team is different. How we had a coach who did not believe in the screen pass is beyond me….that’s how you neutralize a good pass rush…thus we already have 4 touchdowns on screen passes…thank God Mularkey is Jacksonville’s problem now!!!!!


November 3rd, 2012
8:23 am

I agree with gary32 that Ryan trying to win in the playoffs with our previous OC an DC was like playing with one hand tied behind his back.


November 3rd, 2012
8:44 am

Mike Nolan has been putting on a defensive clinic this whole season. Playing to your player’s strengths and limitations and yet covering the offense’s strength is the only way to go. Yet it is difficult to do. You have to instill faith in the players because they all have to adjust their game a little from week to week. Teamwork trumps individual heroics every time, especially in football. He also seems to be simplifying the game for the defense. Last year, everyone looked like a deer in the headlights and it looked like everyone was doing calculations in their head while the ball went flying past them. This year, they are looking at the offense and following the ball, then attacking with reckless abandon, following the great instincts that got them where they are. I like that! They seem to be having fun and boy are they fun to watch. Turnovers are KING in a league with this much parity and they are doing extremely well there. I’m hoping to see this defense begin to score points… a great defense is capable of scoring 14 points a game and the Falcons are moving that direction… I can’t wait to watch them on Sunday night! GO FALCONS! YOU ARE RISING UP!

Big Crimson 75

November 3rd, 2012
8:48 am

Smitty needs to give it up & let Nolan run his patented 3-4.
We actually stopped the run against Philly.
Babs is balling again this year.

D man

November 3rd, 2012
9:33 am

I like what I have seen so far this season. It’s working only giving up 18.6 points per game. The offense is helping the defense too by keeping the ball. Great team effort this year…

Mike Jay

November 3rd, 2012
9:53 am

It’s amazing how much a difference in D coordinators has made. It shouldn’t happen at the professional level but players can give up on a coach and not play hard. That certainly appeared to be the case with BVG. Like most successful college coaches who try the NFL he failed to grasp the fact that he is now coaching grown men and needs to treat them as such. When players buy into and believe in a system it can make all the difference. This is not super talented group top to bottom (underrated imo) but they are playing hard, having fun and should be successful enough to help this team go far. I am loving it!

Mike Jay

November 3rd, 2012
9:56 am

BC 75, They will run his 3-4 eventually but you can;t just flip a switch and go from a 4-3 to it overnight. Well you can, plenty of coaches have tried and failed mostly. It’s a sign of a good coach who puts his ego aside and builds a scheme around the talent he has and not try to force something. Another offseason of moves will help them get the players required to make the switch. Though we tend to play nickle most of the time anyhow so who knows.


November 3rd, 2012
10:10 am

A HUGE shot out to Daunte!!! Really stepped it up this year. Not the best in coverage but good playing zone, blitzing, and run support. He is a 3rd safety on the field….Imagine if Grimey was playing and Daunte was still in the slot!!

SN: Daunte would be a top 10 safety.


November 3rd, 2012
10:18 am

Not to change the subject but did anyone else catch the TOTAL disrespect espn’s Hugh Douglas gave the FALCONS Friday?


November 3rd, 2012
10:24 am

James, NO ONE is giving us any respect. We ruined the Peyton Manning Comeback Show on Monday night. Ruined Andy Reid’s bye week winning streak. And now we’re unefeated. Not the Patriots, or the Packers. We really need to play tough for 60 minutes Sunday night and show them Falcons football!!!


November 3rd, 2012
10:47 am

True that FalconPride66

Still Gritz Blitz'n

November 3rd, 2012
11:23 am

Well Said; & hey, I like it that way, the more they say u can’t, the more hungrier you get to proove ‘em wrong. Even the o’l sunday night analyst(emphasize-anal)crissy collinsworth done said he’s givin’ this one to the cowboy’s. Boy love to hear all the excuses he’s gonna be stammer’n out when we do someth’n good, & project’n what the boy’s must do to stop the birds on there drive, yeah crissy keep hate’n us dude, that’l make the ATL flock that much stronger. Diff’rent breed of bird this year crissy!


November 3rd, 2012
11:44 am

james and FalconPride66, I agree with you guys 100%. I’ve really gotten sick of listening to most of the so called prognosticators downing the Falcons. Colin Cowherd of ESPN radio ranks the falcons as 7th in his rankings. How in the hell do you rank an undefeated team as number seven? And do you want to know what his reason is as with most others who are hating on the falcons? The last year(s) playoff results? If they are to be judged on past playoff performances in this a new year, they may as well be ranked 20th. They never mention the fact that these new coordinators are making a different along with the players buying into what they are saying. We falcon fans are living in the present and as long as the team and we fans believe, screw the prognosticators and the haters. Period.


November 3rd, 2012
11:52 am

I resented the disrespect at first, but now I’ve grown to accept it. They keep fattening up that crow and eventually they’re gonna have to eat it. Also I’m pretty sure the team hears it too (I know Gonzo had) and it fuels their fire. The defense is only gonna get better with peters back. Go Falcons!


November 3rd, 2012
12:06 pm

In the Dallas newspaper, I saw where Rob Ryan said that the Falcons were going to lose to his Cowgirls, without a doubt yet!! That should be extra motivation for the Facons.


November 3rd, 2012
12:07 pm

That would be Falcons!!

Eric C.

November 3rd, 2012
12:32 pm

I like the 3-3-5 look with the three DTs!

Eric C.

November 3rd, 2012
12:34 pm

So, I guess Dez Bryant is playing since he went through drills yesterday, but guessing he’s not 100 percent.


November 3rd, 2012
1:15 pm

Reprinted without permission:

“The Cowboys have lost their past seven Sunday night games. They will face a Falcons team that is 7-0 on the season and has won the third most home games in the NFL since 2008, posting a 29-6 record. Quarterback Matt Ryan is 29-4 as a starter at the Georgia Dome — only New England’s Tom Brady (26-2) has a better home winning percentage.”

Still Gritz Blitz'n

November 3rd, 2012
1:15 pm

Fire it up red & black, Fire it up! Ye nay prognosticators, those who joke at the ATL, KEEP IT COMING! The ATL is just gett’n warmed up, Coach Nolan, show’em the red-black birds ain’t gonna be soft, as the long locks of coach cow-girl Rob keeps gett’n in in his face, we’ll smash mouth him & his cow-girls back to dallas like a bunch of Hephers(female cows)!Mooooooo!

Still Gritz Blitz'n

November 3rd, 2012
1:19 pm

Good Digs Esquire. Correct me for the mispell of “Hephers” or is it “Hefer’s” my bad. Anyhow what ever a female cow is, this is grown man football, not for boys.

Still Gritz Blitz'n

November 3rd, 2012
1:21 pm

The national naysayers & prognosticators are wak’n up a sleep’n Giant, Get Bolistic Atl!


November 3rd, 2012
1:35 pm

Dez Bryant: The gates are down and the lights are flashing, but the train isn’t coming.

(reprinted without permission)

Dallas Cowboys: Dez Bryant allowed to miss curfew

Dez Bryant’s curfew has been lifted. At least for one night. The Dallas Cowboys receiver was given permission to stay out past midnight into Saturday morning. The team imposed a set of guidelines for Bryant after he was arrested for a Class A misdemeanor charge for domestic violence in a July incident involving his mother. Bryant was given permission to frequent a nightclub to celebrate his Nov. 4 birthday.Bryant arrived to the team walk-through on time Saturday morning. He is listed as questionable with a sore hip.

Bryant was basically ratted out by the DJ, who posted a picture on his Twitter account. It has since been taken down.
Good to see Bryant was able to hang out without incident. Maybe this was a small step towards earning back his adult privileges.


November 3rd, 2012
1:42 pm

Rob Ryans comments only proves the desperation the Cowboys are feeling.


November 3rd, 2012
1:50 pm

D-Led we need a kick return man bad. Franks isn’t the guy to do it. What’s your opinion?


November 3rd, 2012
6:16 pm

We will never get respect. We have proven we can win games any way we can. Forget the haters! We r gonna win! FALCONS-35 COWGIRLS-21 RISE UP!!!!


November 3rd, 2012
6:37 pm

Do what You Do Coach Nolan. I was loving the fact that you were brought in to be our defensive coordinator. Keep Up the Great Work…….. Go you MIghty Birds of Prey you.


November 3rd, 2012
7:11 pm

What a great hire Mike Nolan was. Both coordinators actually. Love the multible looks he gives to opposing offenses. And just as important as the Xs and Os is the players LOVE playing for this guy. You can hear in their voices that (just like Smitty) they would run through walls for this man. Already had a top notch owner, general manager, and head coach. The 2 new coordinators take us to a whole new level. I believe a super (bowl?) level

Still Gritz Blitz'n

November 3rd, 2012
7:25 pm

Coach Nolan’s the Bomb; Mr. Blank, if this gets us to superbowl sir, pay both these coordinators Hansomly, don’t let ‘em get away.

Yet Another Opponent With A Losing Record

November 3rd, 2012
7:35 pm

Amazing that a 3-4 team s more news worthy than the hype 7-0.

Herpes Butter

November 3rd, 2012
9:12 pm

Enter your comments here

Herpes Butter

November 3rd, 2012
9:13 pm

Can we at least get Nolan to grow a porn star stache like Van Gorder?


November 3rd, 2012
9:31 pm

HBCU Classic Sports
Week 10

Fort Valley State 38
Albany State 20

Morehouse 55
Kentucky State 7

Tuskegee 27
Miles 17

Lane 38
Benedict 21

Michael M .

November 3rd, 2012
11:06 pm

He will have another checkmate against the Cowgirls in some few hours…………………………don’t forget to set those clocks back Fans !………………


November 3rd, 2012
11:11 pm

Is it Sunday night, yet? Can’t wait to see our Birds in action….gonna be a long Sunday afternoon…



November 3rd, 2012
11:58 pm

Nolans nice!!!!! I SO GLAD WE GOT HIM.


November 4th, 2012
12:55 am

We are going to kick dat behind next week

Thanks to Goodell you guys think you got a chance. Who is your daddy?


November 4th, 2012
2:35 am

This 2012 Falcons team understands what it takes to accomplish their ultimate goal. In doing that they will silence all critics (with intelect), and erase all doubt concerning the abilities of the staff, owner and fans. It has been a long time coming.
Our opponents in the next contest are numerous to be sure. They say and pretend that we are limited by the past. They live and exist to deny and belittle the efforts of this organization and this city and its fans. This is a tried and true method to rid themselves of flies in their ointment.
Few things would make me happier than a full-blown, dominating and thorough win from the falcons. Thanks to the changes in attitude and never say die spirit of THIS team, I have a never before experienced confidence in their performance. This was entirely team inspired. What a thrill!
Thank You Falcons!
P.S. Cowgirl’s Fans, biased media talking heads, Aints apologists and blog Trolls….talk to 7 & 0

Still Gritz Blitz'n

November 4th, 2012
9:10 am

The Red & Black will alway’s be you’re Daddy, u li’l who da’t gumbo, & you kick’n what behind?, you’rs has been kicked, & these Birds have strong focus to throw you back in the swamps from hence you came, any words from li’l who da’t (or should be called li’l wayne who da’t) don’t carry any weight. everybody else has put you in you’re place, even the commish had to bring some justice smack down in swamp land. Bring it on, if you got anything small change. Here’s a quarter, call somebody who cares. LOL, these who dat’s are funny, the clowns of marte-gras.

Still Gritz Blitz'n

November 4th, 2012
9:11 am

@incdark; Very good read, no better said.

Still Gritz Blitz'n

November 4th, 2012
9:12 am

What you just said, this is a Different Breed of Bird in A-town.

Still Gritz Blitz'n

November 4th, 2012
9:20 am

The Red & Black Bring’n on some real Smack Down Football; Good Write-up D-Led; enjoyed the article. Fired Up Baby!


November 4th, 2012
10:06 am

Why does anyone care what the talking heads on the various TV networks have to say about the Falcons, or anything else, for that matter?


November 4th, 2012
10:09 am

I hope that Dez Bryant does play in the Falcons/cowboy game.
He is a #1 F-up.


November 4th, 2012
10:24 am

It is good to see the positive comments on these various AJC blogs, about the Falcons new OC and DC, after the lambasting about the hiring of these two, that was made, from so many people before the season started.

Falcon James

November 4th, 2012
10:41 am

BVG record at Auburn say a lot.