The Falcons have been tinkering with a 3-4 defense for most of 2012. However, there is talk of a full-time move to 3-4 personnel in 2013. It's not happening. Well, not in the way most fans think it will be happening.
D. Orlando Ledbetter tweeted the following during coach Mike Smith's press conference:
#Falcons coach Mike Smith said, "I'm not ruling out anything" when asked if he plans to shift to a 3-4. Roster must be evaluated 1st.— D. Orlando Ledbetter (@AJCFalcons) January 21, 2013
The switch to a 3-4 seems like something that could make sense. Coach Smith isn't ruling it out at all, but that doesn't mean it will happen either.
Let's explore the keys to what would be needed in a switch to the 3-4, while also keeping in mind the style of defense that Mike Nolan has run in his 15 years as a defensive coordinator.
As far as the base defense is concerned, it only affects the defensive tackles, linebackers and defensive ends. So we will be omitting the secondary from this exercise. According to Spotrac, the only players from those units who are even under contract in the defensive front seven are as follows:
4-3 Defensive Ends: John Abraham, Kroy Biermann, Cliff Matthews, Jonathan Massaquoi
4-3 Defensive Tackles: Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry, Corey Peters, Travian Robertson, Micanor Regis
Linebackers: Stephen Nicholas, Sean Weatherspoon, Akeem Dent, Robert James, Pat Schiller.
Baltimore and the Jets both run a scheme very similar to what Mike Nolan ran when he was in Baltimore. They involve an alignment on the defensive like with a 3-technique weak-side defensive tackle similar to what Jonathan Babineaux already plays in the 4-3.
It also includes a nose tackle that doesn't play the standard 0-technique over the center but a 1-technique lining up in the strong-side A-gap—the role that Corey Peters plays in the 4-3. Their weakside linebacker is basically just a standing right end.
The rest of the positions are very similar to the standard one-gap 3-4 defense that Wade Phillips runs in Houston, and their roles are very straightforward. The inside linebackers have to mainly play the run and coverage, while the strong-side outside linebacker sets the edge and rushes the passer.
Fits for a 3-4 weak-side 3-technique tackle would be Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry. They would line up in the weak-side B-gap every play. Their goal would be to just penetrate and disrupt similar to how Haloti Ngata does it in Baltimore.
The fit for a 3-4 one-gap nose tackle would be Corey Peters. Much like Kelly Gregg in Baltimore, he will be a little undersized for the role, but he could very well turn into a dominant force as he would be tasked with forcing double teams and keeping his linebackers clean.
Fits for a 3-4 strong-side defensive end would be Travian Robertson. Corey Peters and Micanor Regis. Peters might fit best on the defensive end in the 5-technique. However, Travian Robertson is a better fit as his length allows him to attack the strong-side tackle every play and keep his outside linebacker clean.
Fits for a 3-4 weak outside linebacker spot, or the "Will," would be John Abraham and Jonathan Massaquoi. Their role would be to play the outside shoulder of the 3-technique tackle on the weakside. Contrary to popular belief, Mike Nolan would run these players similar to Terrell Suggs in Baltimore. Suggs drops into coverage rarely and is mainly focused on the run or pass rushing.
Fits for a 3-4 weak inside linebacker spot (the "Mike") would be Sean Weatherspoon and Pat Schiller. This is the highlighted player in the entire defense. Weatherspoon would enjoy and excel in this role. But he's also one of the best linebackers in the NFL, so this should be no surprise.
Fits for a 3-4 strong inside linebacker spot, or the "Ted," would be Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas. This is the "thumper" role if there was one. Dent and Nicholas are both mediocre in coverage at this time in their respective careers, but this would allow them to play primarily against the run and then roll off of the field on nickel downs.
The fit for a 3-4 strong outside linebacker spot—the "Sam"—would be Kroy Biermann. In a role very similar to what Jarret Johnson played, Biermann would be tasked with setting the edge against the run, which is his strength, as well as dropping into coverage and then getting after the passer when it's an obvious passing down.
Robert James and Cliff Matthews would struggle in the 3-4 looks. Matthews is ideally a 4-3 left defensive end and would still have value in sub-packages. However, James would likely be cut with a move to the 3-4 as he poses no value outside of special teams and is wholly undersized.
The following three questions come up about this defensive alignment:
Would Atlanta Try To Bring In a Nose Tackle and Move Corey Peters to a More Natural End Role?
With how Corey Peters fits in the defense if there was a switch, they would be able to draft the best player available. If that happens to be a monster like Jesse Williams or John Jenkins in the draft, they should go after them regardless of a scheme change.
However, if they did bring in one of those two for the base defense, having a front of Babineaux, Peters and one of those two would be able to keep the four linebackers clean and open up wide pass rushing lanes for the linebackers to attack.
Without going after a top player like that in the draft, the Falcons would be stuck relying on a second year player drafted in the seventh round and a former practice squad player to play the strong-side end role.
Where Does the Pass Rush Come From?
As of now, it'd come almost entirely from John Abraham. Again. The Falcons would need to find someone who could get some rush at the ends and on the strong-side. There would have to be a ton of blitzes.
One interesting thing could be double A-gap blitzes, but that would turn more into a mush rush style defense than anything else. Either way you cut it, Atlanta would need to turn in better performances from its front group to have an impact in a 3-4 switch.
Does Base Defense Really Matter Anymore?
In all honesty, no. The Falcons played their base defense just 32% of the time according to Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus. Most of that was in a three defensive tackle package where the Falcons had Jonathan Babineaux playing the left end role once Ray Edwards was cut.
Honestly, the Falcons design their base defense around the team they are playing. They have multiple looks they throw out every game, and the best plan of action is to continue with what they have going on with Mike Nolan's schemes.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, NFL and NFL Draft. He is also the Falcons analyst at Drafttek, runs the NFL Draft Website ScarDraft.com and hosts Kvetching Draftniks Radio.