The Falcons made the playoffs in 2008 with a defense they hated. They like their defense now. They like it because coach Mike Smith and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder no longer should have to outscheme opponents to stop somebody. This defense is stout enough to overpower people.
Only four starters — John Abraham, Jamaal Anderson, Curtis Lofton and Erik Coleman — are the same as in 2008, which means the Falcons essentially have started over. When you start over, you get worse before you get better. The Falcons actually improved a bit in 2009. Two years ago they had the NFL’s 24th-ranked defense; last season they inched upward to No. 21. Most places that would constitute good news. Not here.
During organized team activities this spring, VanGorder put that ranking — No. 21 — on the board for his men to see. “He said, ‘This is where we are,’” said Lofton, the middle linebacker. “It was like a slap in the face.”
Incremental progress isn’t on the Falcons’ agenda; a great leap forward is. They want to be up with the big boys. They want to be a top-10 defense.
Said Thomas Dimitroff, the general manager: “We definitely have the speed and the athleticism. We definitely want to be a top-10 defense, and we think this defense is developing in that direction.”
On Friday the Falcons played their first exhibition. Three defensive starters — tackle Peria Jerry, linebacker Mike Peterson and the high-priced import cornerback Dunta Robinson — didn’t participate. Didn’t matter. It wasn’t until the final play of the first quarter that Kansas City managed a first down. The Chiefs’ first six snaps yielded yards, a sack and a turnover.
The Falcons changed five defensive starters from the end of the 2008 season to the beginning of 2009. The idea was to get faster and meaner, but an increase in speed wasn’t immediately evident. Because it’s hard to play fast when you’re not yet sure where you’re going. “We’re jelling together now,” Peterson said. “We’re seeing how much of a difference that makes.”
Said Kroy Biermann, the backup defensive end whose strip of quarterback Matt Cassel generated the fumble recovered by Abraham: “We’re always working to be a fast and violent defense, and now guys are starting to get comfortable.”
Said Thomas DeCoud, the free safety: “We want to play with more urgency. We want to have a swagger, a chip on our shoulder. We want to be a defense that dares the offense to move the ball on you.”
In 2008, a new coaching staff had a hard time finding 11 capable defenders. With three offseasons behind it, this administration has had time to build a D of its choosing, and that number doesn’t end at 11. Rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, conspicuous Friday night, figures to supplant Stephen Nicholas at linebacker before camp is done, and William Moore is pushing Coleman at strong safety. And young linemen such as Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury and Corey Peters are coming hard.
And the big noise figures to be made by Robinson, whom Falcons fans haven’t yet seen. After two seasons of hand-wringing over failures of the cornerbacks, this team has a big-timer in place.
Said DeCoud: “He’s a lockdown corner.”
Said Peterson: “Dunta is going to be big. He’s going to take one side of the field and shut it down.”
Said Lofton: “You can pick a lot of guys who are going to make a difference this season — Dunta, Peria, Spoon, Kroy Biermann.”
And that’s the key: The 2010 Falcons have a lot of guys. In 2008 most all the big names were on offense, and while it’s sometimes fun to outscore people, it’s a nerve-racking way to live. The imbalance between the O and the D has been addressed. This is a real team.
Said DeCoud: “We’re full-fledged. We’ve got all our ducks in a row, so to speak.”
The upshot of that: Offenses arrayed against this full-fledged defense better get used to ducking.