Under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons have employed a multiple defense, which means it is not strictly a 4-3, nor is it a 3-4 scheme. It’s a hybrid between the two and for the most part over the two years that Nolan has been in Atlanta, it could be most accurately termed a 4-3 scheme with 3-4 principles.
But things might change in 2014 as the Falcons may flip it, opting for a 3-4 scheme with 4-3 principles instead. That change is signaled by the team’s expensive additions up front this offseason, including defensive end Tyson Jackson.
Jackson spent the past five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs playing in a 3-4 scheme, and is the second-highest paid defensive lineman on the roster behind only nose tackle Paul Soliai. Given that level of investment and the fact that Jackson has little experience playing in a 4-3, it does appear that at least for the team’s base packages, the Falcons will feature a lot more three-man fronts.
Jackson will help solidify the run defense, as he did with the Chiefs. The big question surrounding him is whether or not he’s going to add much to the pass rush. While Jackson is coming off a career-high four sacks in 2013, he was often pulled in nickel situations by the Chiefs. That might also be the case for the Falcons.
Opposite Jackson in those three-man fronts is expected to be veteran Jonathan Babineaux. Babineaux has played more of a hybrid defensive tackle and defensive end role under Nolan, with the likelihood he’ll see a lot more of the latter in the team’s base. But also, Babineaux is expected to continue to be a fixture on all three downs, kicking inside when the Falcons employ a four-man front on passing downs.
A key for Babineaux will be reducing his workload, as he ranked fourth among defensive tackles with 924 snaps according to premium website Pro Football Focus last season. Babineaux turns 33 in October and a dramatic reduction in snaps should keep him fresher this season.
Second-year end Malliciah Goodman likely figures heavily in the team’s plans to lighten Babineaux’s load. Goodman has bulked up this offseason to better fit in a 3-4, and should see a significant increase of reps in the Falcons’ rotation. Goodman showed solid ability versus the run last year, and if he can get extensive work in the base package, could leave Babineaux fresher to create pressure in passing situations.
Pushing for playing time will also be rookie Ra’Shede Hageman, who could be considered the heir apparent to Babineaux as a player that can play all over the front. Thanks to the presences of veterans like Jackson, Babineaux and Goodman, the Falcons won’t feel compelled to rush Hageman’s progress. But the more he can do as a rookie, the better things will be for the defense. Hageman is talented but raw, and how well he performs this summer could be a heavy indicator of his future in Atlanta
On the outside, the team will have Jonathan Massaquoi and Osi Umenyiora being primarily responsible for generating edge pressure. Massaquoi is expected to assume a role as an every-down player and many suspect he’s poised to take that next step as a pass-rusher. How effective he is in the preseason will be a strong indicator if those suspicions are right.
Massaquoi will also be asked to play some outside linebacker when the Falcons utilize a more classic 3-4 looks. However, given the high probability that Massaquoi’s primary duties will be applying heat on opposing quarterbacks rather than dropping in coverage, he’ll still function more as a defensive end even if he stands up like a linebacker.
Umenyiora is expected to be relegated to the designated pass-rusher or “DPR,” as a player that will get the bulk of his reps in passing situations. That was how he ended his disappointing 2013 season for the Falcons, and it’s unlikely he can do anything this summer to change things.
While the notion that the team would tinker with his contract might have indicated that Umenyiora could be on the roster bubble this summer, given the fact that the team was unable to draft a notable edge-rusher in this past May’s draft likely makes Umenyiora safe.
Pushing them will be Stansly Maponga, who sporadically flashed some pass-rushing skills as a rookie last season. Making the roster will be his biggest obstacle this summer, let alone cracking the rotation. Maponga’s future is likely slated to eventually taking over Umenyiora’s DPR role, thus any improved pass-rush skills will be a major factor in determining if Maponga sticks. Teams don’t let quality pass-rushers go and it will be on Maponga to make himself indispensable.
Also on the bubble will be third-year pro Cliff Matthews. Last year, Matthews transformed himself from a high-motor and slight defensive end to a thickly muscled defensive tackle. The transformation did not work as Matthews was largely ineffective. Perhaps with another year to get more comfortable in his new frame, his play will improve this summer. Matthews plays with high energy and is a good special teamer, but all the additions and changes the Falcons have made this offseason could easily push him off the team unless he can make more impact plays on defense.
Undrafted rookie Nosa Eguae is a long shot to make the roster, but could push for a practice squad spot with a good summer.
Overall, the Falcons have improved their rotation enough that it should allow veterans like Babineaux and Umenyiora enough breathers to make them more effective. Coupled with an increased contribution from Goodman and the additions of Jackson and Hageman means the Falcons should sport a capable, if not good front this season.