An offseason priority for the Atlanta Falcons was “toughening up” their team, with an emphasis on bulking up on both lines of scrimmage. The team did just that when they opened up free agency by signing defensive tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson.
For many, it signaled that the Falcons were moving to a 3-4 scheme. Why else would would they guarantee $25 million to players that have spent the bulk of their careers playing in that defensive scheme? While Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has coached both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, prior to his arrival in Atlanta he had not coached a defense with a 4-3 as their base scheme in seven years. Nolan’s history signaled a clear preference for the 3-4 defense, and the signings of Soliai and Jackson appeared to be that preference finally coming to fruition in Atlanta after two years of a hybrid unit between the two schemes.
But Falcons head coach Mike Smith was quick to pump the brakes on those expectations, indicating that the team would still be utilizing a hybrid scheme. That makes sense given the team opted to bring back free agents Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry, who all were drafted by the Falcons originally to play in a 4-3 scheme.
Although it’s interesting that between the three of them, they are making less than $5 million in guaranteed money. So if money talks, then the Falcons will be tailoring their defense more towards the strengths of Jackson and Soliai, which should indicate more 3-4 “flavor” than 4-3 in their hybrid unit in 2014.
That should help a player like Malliciah Goodman, who has the ability to play in either scheme, but may project best in a 3-4 at defensive end. Goodman flashed good ability as a run defender as a rookie last year, and has reportedly bulked up considerably this offseason with the mindset of becoming a regular in the team’s base defense.
That development should benefit a player like Babineaux, who was the team’s top pass-rusher a year ago despite having a single sack. Per Moneyball game reviews which focus on All-22, Babineaux led the team with 13 “positive pass rushes,” which are sacks, quarterback hits and pressures combined. Babineaux also played the most of any Falcon defensive lineman last year with 924 snaps according to premium website Pro Football Focus. Only William Moore (1,064 snaps) and Desmond Trufant (1,022) played more on defense. Babineaux’s reps were the fourth-most of any interior defensive lineman in the league in 2013, and frankly way too much for a 32-year old player.
Goodman missed two games due to injury last season, but wound up playing 305 snaps. If he can carve a bigger role in the rotation, particularly on run downs, it will allow the team to streamline Babineaux’s playing time on passing downs. That could potentially cut his snap count in half, and thus keep him fresher for this year and give him a better chance to play out the remainder of what is expected to be his final NFL contract.