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.”
OTHER RECENT STORIES