***Editor’s Note — this is part 1 of a two part look at the defensive side of the ball***
To be nice, the Atlanta Falcons defense has not lived up to expectations in a long time. To be blunt, the Falcons defense has been downright atrocious pretty much for the entirety of the Smith and Dimitroff regime. Faults lie vast and wide in a defense that doesn’t look much different from the one in 2008. Some has been coaching. Some has been drafting. Other parts has been scheme, while still other parts has been development. But all involved are to blame. 2010 saw a defense that finished top 5 in points allowed in the NFL, only to completely collapse vs. Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers in the second half.
2012 saw the Falcons defense do pretty good overall against the pass and do a very good job at creating turnovers, but were horrid vs. the run and even worse against tight ends in the playoffs. After nearly blowing one lead up 27-7 vs. Seattle, the Falcons did fall apart against the Niners and lose after being up 17-0 and later 24-14. It appeared as though once the defense or scheme was figured out, that was it, and the onslaught couldn’t be stopped. The playoffs were just the icing on the cake on the downright pitiful nature of the Falcons defense the last four years. It’s hard to argue against completely imploding most of this defense in some form or fashion. Whether it be personnel, scheme, development, drafting, or all of the above.
The Falcons under Thomas Dimtiroff have invested heavily on the defensive side of the ball with little to no avail. 1st round draft picks have included DT Peria Jerry and LB Sean Weatherspoon. William Moore was drafted in the second round, along with recently departed Curtis Lofton. They have used plenty of lower round picks on defensive players as well, including Thomas DeCoud, Kroy Biermann, Lawrence Sidbury, Chris Owens, Dominique Franks, Vance Walker, Cliff Matthews, Jonathan Massaquoi, Travian Robertson, Charles Mitchell, Akeem Dent, and Robert James, all of which either start or are on the team as depth. They drafted a handful of other defensive players that are no longer with the team including Spencer Adkins, William Middleton, Wilrey Fontenot among a handful of others. Julio Jones and Matt Ryan may be the most notable draft picks, but plenty have been used for defense as well.
Not only has TD & Co. used a bunch of picks on defensive players, they’ve also spent in free agency or acquired players via trade as well. The most obvious is Dunta Robinson who got an eye-poppingly enormous contract in 2009. They signed Mike Peterson to a decent contract. They re-upped Biermann, Stephen Nicholas, Jonathan Babineaux, and John Abraham. They signed Ray Edwards to help the pass rush and that will go easily go down as Dimitroff’s biggest free agent bust. He also traded for All-Pro cornerback Asante Samuel. So where has this defense gone so wrong? It depends how long you have to listen. In all seriousness, this post is meant to look at the past errors and look to the future.
The most obvious one that comes to mind is one DT Peria Jerry, easily Dimitroff’s worst pick. He seemingly reached for a player that fell just because the Falcons had a need at DT. Jerry was slotted to go high in the first round and he started to sink fast, likely due to his major injury history. He got hurt in the first game played and just has never gotten back his collegiate form. Clay Matthews was picked one spot later. It still smarts to have to type those words.
Even worse of a decision was the idea to draft Jamaal Anderson out of Arkansas with the #8 overall pick. One Patrick Willis was picked just a few spots later. Not only did Rich McKay miss on all-world LB Willis, but there were 9 more players selected in the first round that went on to become a Pro Bowler (Darelle Revis, Marshawn Lynch, Michael Griffin, Joe Staley, Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Meriweather, Jon Beason, Anthony Spencer, and Ben Grubbs). There’s a saying that when you miss very poorly on a 1st round draft pick (especially an early one) that it will set your franchise back almost 5 years. How long has this defense been struggling again?
This was mentioned in a previous post about the wide indictment on the lack of pass rush, seemingly forever. The Falcons have drafted plenty of “talented projects” that, if developed correctly, could conceivably become a starter or at the very least contribute on a regular basis. There’s many examples to choose from over the last five years, but a few stick out: Lawrence Sidbury and Chris Owens.
Sidbury was a beast at the combine and in college with his amazing pass-rushing skills. He was one of the fastest defensive ends to come out in the draft that year and just seemed to have a knack for getting after the quarterback. He came on late in 2009 and notched a sack, fumble, and a defensive touchdown vs. Buffalo. The future was bright. The next year either saw him get injured or captured by a gang of soccer hooligans, because he only made appearances in 6 games. Many just scratched him up as a good talent that couldn’t convert to the NFL.
Then the 2011 season came. It’s unsure of exactly how many limited snaps he got, but it was enough to set career highs in tackles (9) and sacks (4). Fans expecting a huge breakout with the addition of Mike Nolan and his use of edge rushers were in for extreme disappointment and bewilderment. He was only active for 10 games and notched a whopping 1 tackle on the season. When Ray Edwards was cut out, Sidbury was leapfrogged by both Cliff Matthews and rookie Jonathan Massaquoi. It’s one of the most frustrating mysteries ever involving the Atlanta Falcons. Sidbury is a free agent and there’s fear that he will go on to another team and blow up.
Another example is Chris Owens. The former San Jose State cornerback shocked almost all Falcons fans when he was drafted in the 3rd round and everyone went “who?” Owens wasn’t the most highly rated, but he came on to start at the end of the year for the Atlanta Falcons, needing three straight victories to rid themselves of the “never-winning-back-to-back” curse, two of which were on the road. Owens held his own and did very well. Thomas Dimitroff goes out and gets Dunta Robinson in free agency and it seems Owens has regressed ever since, (even though he seemed to do much, much better in Mike Nolan’s scheme). It’s one thing for fans to speculate on potential that’s never actualized, but it’s quite another to see it with their own eyes either during the preseason or regular season, only either to regress or never be heard from again. Along with being one of the most frustrating things to fans, it’s also hindered production in not having younger prospects ready to take over for aging or unproductive veterans.
Some believe that the Falcons don’t have the personnel to convert to a 3-4 and would need a ton of infusion to make it work, from a big-bodied DT to 5-techniques DEs, and even inside linebackers. The counter argument is, can the Falcons afford to NOT convert to the 3-4? The Falcons have a ton of players that just don’t seem to fit in Smith’s preferred 4-3 alignment. Kroy Biermann, Cliff Matthews, Jonathan Massaquoi, and several others seem more likely to flourish as outside linebackers in a 3-4, rather than true defensive ends in a 4-3. Stephen Nicholas looked pretty bad in his role as a 4-3 OLB trying to cover Vernon Davis and Zach Miller. Akeem Dent played in a 3-4 in college under Todd Grantham. Nolan even moved Jonathan Babineaux to defensive end to try and assist to stop the run.
Not only does Nolan prefer the 3-4, but there’s also an argument that it’s much more conducive to find players that are suitable for the 3-4, as opposed to true defensive ends in the 4-3. In fact, almost all the best defenses in the NFL run the 3-4. The Falcons have obviously shown they can not develop their own effective defensive ends in the 4-3 (see Jamaal Anderson) or even pick them out in free agency (see Ray Edwards). And that leads into the next argument.
Regardless of schemes, personnel, or players, the best reason to move to a 3-4 is that the 4-3 under Mike Smith is just not working. The 4-3 worked for Smith in Jacksonville, but it helped to have two behemoths at defensive tackle in John Henderson and Marcus Stroud. For whatever reason, the Falcons front office have seemed almost averse to getting bigger defensive tackles, which has resulted in the no pass rush and recently weak vs. the run. Above all, five years of draft picks, free agents, and even a change in coordinators has resulted in a defense that just isn’t good and nowhere near dominant. In fact, this defense looks indistingiushable from the 2008 defense that both Smith and Dimitroff vowed to fix. That’s the most damning statement of all.
Pitiful Punt Returner
1) Quick Pick 6 – what should be the Falcons plan to get this defense right?
2) What’s been the biggest problem with this defense for the past 5 years?
3) Should the Falcons look at any defensive free agents?
4) What should the Falcons focus on in the draft?
5) What positions need a major overhaul?
6) What positions need minor adjustments?
7) Biggest issue: bad picks, poor development, scheme, or coaching?
8.) Should Falcons move to the 3-4?
9) WILL the Falcons move to the 3-4?
10) Is TD or Mike Smith more indicted on the defensive issues?
11) Can the defense be fixed quickly or is it a long road?