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New defensive coordinator to keep Falcons in 4-3

FLOWERY BRANCH -- Mike Nolan has no plans to switch the Atlanta Falcons to a 3-4 scheme in his first year as defensive coordinator.

During job discussions earlier this week with coach Mike Smith, Nolan agreed that the Falcons were better suited to stay with a 4-3, which deploys four linemen and three linebackers, instead of switching to his preferred 3-4.

As Nolan sees it, Atlanta doesn't need an overhaul to become an elite defense. He shared similar thoughts with Smith as the two watched film together and discussed philosophies.

"If I felt like it could easily be tweaked to go to something else because I felt it could be better, I would obviously suggest it," Nolan said during a teleconference on Wednesday. "But I think the track they've been on is a good one."

Nolan has spent 14 years as an NFL coordinator, using the 4-3 for seven years and the 3-4 for seven.

However, since New England and Pittsburgh were the only teams to run it 10 years ago, the 3-4 has grown in popularity as yards passing have continued to soar in recent years.

Today, half the league runs a 3-4. Nolan used it effectively during recent career stops in Miami and Denver, where he worked as coordinator the last three years, and in San Francisco, where he was head coach for four years beginning in 2005.

"There are probably more good quarterbacks in the league than there has ever been," Nolan said. "Outside of pass rush, the secondary is where the quarterback attacks you the most. It's real important to have a good secondary."

It's too early to tell if all of Atlanta's defensive starters will return next season. Right end John Abraham, the league's active leader with 112 career sacks, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, left cornerback Brent Grimes and free safety Thomas DeCoud will all soon to become free agents.

But the secondary, which returns two starters in right cornerback Dunta Robinson and strong safety William Moore, might need some rebuilding even if Grimes and DeCoud return. Injuries to Grimes and Kelvin Hayden thrust reserves Christopher Owens and Dominique Franks into extra action late in the season and two games, a Week 16 blowout loss at New Orleans and a 24-2 wild-card defeat at the New York Giants, were disastrous.

"People always talk about having four starting DBs," Nolan said, "but I think the future is there are really five starting DBs if these quarterbacks keep doing what they are doing."

Smith and Nolan worked on Baltimore's staff in 2001 and '02. In their second year together with the Ravens, Nolan was the coordinator and Smith the linebackers coach. Smith left in 2003 to become coordinator in Jacksonville.

When Atlanta owner Arthur Blank hired Thomas Dimitroff as general manager and Smith as head coach in 2008, the Falcons used the same scheme and some of the same assistant coaches that helped Smith build a respected 4-3 scheme with the Jaguars.

Nolan sees no point in tearing down that foundation, particularly with players such as weakside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, the NFL's No. 19 overall draft pick of 2010, coming off an impressive season and three other starters -- nose tackle Corey Peters, three-technique tackle Jonathan Babineaux and left end Ray Edwards -- still showing lots of promise.

If Nolan can match the numbers Miami produced last season, it will be a good start for the Falcons. The Dolphins allowed the sixth-fewest points in the NFL (19.6 per game), ranked third in rushing yards allowed (95.6) and tied for 10th with 41 sacks.

Atlanta ranked sixth against the run, but the Falcons finished 18th in points allowed and 20th in total defense. They are 0-3 under Smith in the playoffs.

"I do believe that the vision for them, and the target they've been hitting, is one we want to stay consistent with it and go forward in that respect," Nolan said.