There appears to be a movement among the Falcons fan base to push for the team to move towards a 3-4 defense. While I think ultimately the Falcons could benefit from a shift to a 3-4 base defense down the road, any changeover should be gradual. The Falcons just don’t currently good 3-4 personnel.
It is clear that Mike Nolan is a 3-4 coach. While he may suggest that he is a practioner of the 4-3, for seven straight years prior to joining the Falcons he coached 3-4 units. And he quickly incorporated 3-4 principles so that for a large chunk of the 2012 season, the Falcons defense had more of a 3-4 flavor than a 4-3 one.
So it makes sense to opt for the defensive scheme that the defensive coordinator prefers. But again, the Falcons shouldn’t rush headlong into a switch. Very few of their current players would benefit from such a change.
The main argument against an immediate switch to the 3-4 is it hurts your best defensive player: Sean Weatherspoon. It’s not a coincidence that Weatherspoon’s production dropped significantly in 2012 with the shift to Nolan’s scheme versus that of Brian VanGorder’s. Under Nolan, Weatherspoon was asked more often to read and react, and have to take on and shed blockers. That is not where he is best at. Weatherspoon is a guy that needs to play in space and run around to make plays. Now, that’s not to say that Spoon can’t be good in a 3-4. Arizona’s Daryl Washington possesses a similar skillset but was one of the league’s best defensive players in 2012. But Washington benefits from having a nice group of linemen up front to help allow him to flow to the ball.
At the nose tackle position, he has Dan Williams. Williams is by no means a superstar, but is an effective nose tackle that can help shield blockers off the inside linebackers like Washington. I think Corey Peters has enough ability to have similar value as Williams, but it’s by no means a slam dunk. To ensure Spoon excels in a 3-4, they must find a suitable nose tackle.
The Cardinals also benefit from having a pair of good ends in Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell. While Jonathan Babineaux and Dockett are similar players and could provide similar roles as penetrating ends, the Falcons do not possess a player like Campbell that has the capacity to dominate one-on-one matchups and draw double teams both versus the run and pass. That needs to be acquired, and as suggested before is the key to any really successful 3-4 defense.
People often point out that the quick turnaround executed by Wade Phillips in Houston could be repeated in Atlanta. But what people don’t realize is that unlike the Falcons, the Texans already had a number of good 3-4 personnel on the team when Phillips first arrived in 2011. Antonio Smith, who preceeded Campbell in Arizona as a starter was already a Texan, and definitely a player that was a good 5-technique defensive end. Unlike Spoon, Brian Cushing at linebacker was arguably a better fit as a 3-4 inside linebacker than the 4-3 strongside linebacker he was pre-Phillips. Connor Barwin was an athletic edge player that some compared to Mike Vrabel when he came out of Cincinnati in 2009.
And what many don’t realize is that the key to Phillips’ initial success in Houston had far more to do with the improvements made by the Texans in their secondary than revamping their front seven. In 2010, the Texans had one of the worst pass defenses in NFL history. They featured a rookie Kareem Jackson and Glover Quin at cornerback, while Eugene Wilson and Bernard Pollard were their safeties. Jackson was one of the league’s worst corners in 2010, but made significant gains in 2011 to become at least competent. Quin was moved to his more natural free safety position, where he replaced Wilson, who prompted retired after the season. Quin was replaced at corner with Johnathan Joseph, one of the better cornerbacks in the league, via free agency. Pollard, an overglorified linebacker, was replaced by free agent Danieal Manning, an athletic cover safety that had split time at nickel cornerback and safety during his time with the Chicago Bears. Along with drafting J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed in 2011, the Texans essentially re-shuffled their entire secondary. Those personnel changes were the primary catalyst for the improvement that the Texans saw under Phillips.
Are the Falcons in a position for a similar revamp? Not really. The Falcons certainly have room to grow at a number of defensive spots, the Falcons may not be able to afford the investment of resources to make such sweeping changes. Along with Watt and Reed, the next three Texans picks were defensive players. Given their needs at running back, tight end, and up front, the Falcons may need to make significant investments in those positions via the draft. Combined, Joseph and Manning netted over $30 million in guaranteed money in the summer of 2011. The Falcons don’t have a lot of cap space to spend this off-season, thus making it hard to go after the top level free agent talent to produce similar results as Joseph and Manning.
When you look around the league at the top 3-4 defenses, you see some commonalities among them. They typically have a dominant defensive end (e.g. J.J. Watt or Justin Smith) on the interior coupled with a capable to good nose tackle. You also will see at least one top-level edge rusher at outside linebacker (e.g. Aldon Smith). And of course any good defense is going to need good secondary play.
If the Falcons could successfully plug Peters in at nose tackle, they’d be missing that interior dominator and edge rusher in the front seven. They are a good cornerback away from elevating their secondary to new heights.
But these are the Falcons needs regardless of a switch in schemes. That interior dominator could easily be a 4-3 defensive tackle like Geno Atkins. The edge rusher could easily be a 4-3 end similar to John Abraham in his prime. Cornerback is a need regardless since Dunta Robinson is on the decline, and Asante Samuel isn’t getting any younger either.
Similar to the Texans before Phillips’ arrival, the Falcons issues on defense don’t center around their scheme but their personnel. Right now they don’t have it. If the next Justin Smith or Calais Campbell falls into the Falcons lap this April, then an immediate move to the 3-4 makes more sense. But until that point, the Falcons shouldn’t be overly choosy about their scheme. Until they make up their minds, they should be targeting players that have the experience or capacity to play (and hopefully excel) in either scheme.