New blood invigorates Falcons defense

Mike Nolan enters his second season as Atlanta’s defensive coordinator and carries 26 years of NFL coaching experience to a unit that gathered talent in the offseason to bolster its production. Atlanta was the oldest team in the NFC last year, but six of its eight 2013 draft picks were on the defensive side of the ball. Coaching up the young cast and finding balance that plays to the strengths of his new band of brothers will be the task at hand this season.


The strength of last year’s unit was takeaways, and the added speed that comes with young legs could actually improve on the Falcons’ turnover margin. The opportunistic group was fifth in the NFL in interceptions last season and 13th in the NFL in forced fumbles. The team also added the master of the sack-fumble play in defensive end Osi Umenyiora. The former Giant set an NFL record in 2010 for most forced fumbles in a season with 10.


Defensive Line


The Falcons gained Super Bowl experience with the addition of Umenyiora this offseason and the end will try to lead Atlanta’s pass rush. The rest of the position lacks the experience of the veteran Umenyiora, but each individual will be able to complement the two-time All-Pro with their own unique set of skills. Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews have received the most work at defensive end in training camp.


Biermann is a versatile option who can play in an array of defensive alignments. The former fifth-round pick has two career interception returns for touchdowns and is dangerous whether he is dropping into coverage or bull-rushing the quarterback. Biermann had a career-high 53 tackles last season.


Massaquoi was taken in the fifth round of the 2012 draft and impressed the coaching staff by tallying a pair of sacks in Atlanta’s first 2013 preseason game. Matthews played in 10 games last season as a reserve defensive end and had a career-high three tackles in Atlanta’s 23-13 win over New Orleans last season. Rookies Malliciah Goodman out of Clemson and Stansly Maponga out of TCU add quality depth at end.


At the tackle position is veteran Jonathan Babineaux, who showed the ability to play some end last season in a 3-4 front, because of his pass rushing ability. Babineaux had a career-high six sacks in 2009 and finished the 2012 season with 42 total tackles. The former Iowa Hawkeye will work with Travian Robertson, Peria Jerry and Corey Peters to bolster the defensive front.


Jerry will be counted on to have an impact this season. The four-year pro started nine games last season, notching 23 tackles and causing one forced fumble. In Week 3 against Miami, Jerry will square off with his brother, John, an offensive lineman with the Dolphins.




The Falcons’ linebacking corps has three fast and talented starters, but the depth behind them is still developing at this point. The draft added to the secondary and defensive line, but Atlanta entered OTA’s with only five linebackers on the roster. The offseason has been used to find reliable backups. Since the start of training camp, key undrafted free agents have been battling for a spot on the 53-man roster.


The clear leader of the linebackers is former 2010 first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon. In 2012, “Spoon” had 114 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble and an interception. The former Missouri Tiger is one of the best young linebackers in the League, and will have to continue guarding the NFL’s long list of freakishly gifted tight ends in pass coverage. Spoon brings speed and energy to the defense every play.


Akeem Dent starts at middle linebacker and showed continued to improve each week last season. In the final two playoff games, Dent recorded 17 of his 79 total tackles. Nolan likes to switch to nickel packages and Dent was often sidelined on passing downs. Without Dent’s size and presence anchoring the middle of the field, running lanes for quarterbacks could open and mobile quarterbacks made it difficult on the secondary to hold up in coverage especially on long crossing routes. The sooner Dent can become trusted as pass defender in his third NFL season, the quicker his numbers and impact on the defense will see an increase.


Stephen Nicholas had a solid 2012 season and recorded a team-high 116 tackles. The former South Florida Bull also added two sacks and an interception to the stat sheet. Nicholas still holds the USF school record with 53.5 tackles for a loss. Stopping offenses at the point of attack and forcing long passing downs will be a goal of this talented starting corps. Tackles-for-loss create long passing downs, and those downs put pressure on the offense and can generate turnovers.


Paul Worrilow is an undrafted free agent out of Delaware State and notched a game-high 12 tackles in the Bengals’ preseason game. The rookie appeared beyond his years and is one of the surest tacklers on the team. Brian Banks continues his journey as a “free man” and is working to be a backup to Dent this season. Joplo Bartu is an undrafted rookie out of Texas State and has a chance to make the roster as a reserve outside linebacker.




The secondary helped set the tone last season in some of the most critical matchups. The group forced three Peyton Manning interceptions in the first quarter of the Falcons win over Denver on Monday Night. Safety William Moore is a gamechanger and had Atlanta’s best defensive performance last season in the home win over the Saints. Moore intercepted two of Brees’ five interceptions and stuffed the Saints with 13 tackles. Adjacent to Moore is free safety Thomas DeCoud, who joined Moore in the 2013 Pro Bowl after a team-high six interceptions. DeCoud has played in every game for the Falcons the past four seasons and the duo creates one of the best safety nets in the League. Rookie safeties Kemal Ishmael, out of UCF, and Zeke Motta from Notre Dame were both drafted in the seventh round and are excellent tacklers and ball hawks.


This year’s first-round pick Desmond Trufant will step in opposite starting cornerback Asante Samuel. Robert Alford was taken in the second round of the draft, and adds another rising star to Atlanta’s pool of cornerbacks. Samuel has made the postseason in nine of his 10 NFL seasons and will be the perfect mentor for the rookie speed merchants stepping into Nolan’s system. Trufant led a Washington secondary that ranked at No. 16 in the nation in pass defense last season despite playing in the “pass-happy” Pac-12 Conference.


Robert McClain was the surprise of Atlanta’s defense last season as he filled in at nickel back throughout. The fourth-year pro had 55 solo tackles and added one interception and two fumble recoveries to his breakout performance. Dominique Franks adds another option at cornerback and was edged out for the nickel back job last season.


Samuel, McClain, Trufant and Alford will give Nolan plenty of flexibility with his personnel groupings, and we will likely see a rotation between the group.



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