Atlanta Falcons’ Kroy Biermann (71) puts a hit on Cincinnati Bengals’ Giovani Bernard during the first half of Thursday’s preseason game at the Georgia Dome. (Staff Photo: Jason Braverman)
FLOWERY BRANCH — When the Atlanta Falcons brought in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan last season, he arrived with a new and aggressive approach on defense that focused on confusing opposing quarterbacks to slow their ability to make good reads and move the ball down the field.
Nolan made safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud orchestrators of the pre-snap chaos, giving them carte blanche to move defensive pieces around prior to the snap then change looks after the snap to dumbfound passers.
The plan worked.
Atlanta ranked fifth in the league last season with 20 interceptions and picked off elite quarterback Peyton Manning three times in one quarter during a Week 2 win over the Denver Broncos and Drew Brees five times in a Week 13 victory against the New Orleans Saints.
As good as Atlanta was at picking off opposing quarterbacks, the Falcons were not on top of getting to them. With just 29 sacks last season, only four teams had fewer sacks in the NFL.
Nolan’s new approach to getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2013 has a lot to do with a somewhat new role for Kroy Biermann.
Biermann, 28, a sixth-year defensive end out of the University of Montana, finished second on the team last season with four sacks and played a bit of a hybrid role as a defensive end and an outside linebacker. Biermann was even used in coverage all over the field.
Through three weeks of training camp, Biermann’s versatility is blossoming. Not only is he still running with the first team as a defensive end at times and a linebacker too, but unlike in years past he’s spending most of his time in individual drills with the linebacker corps.
When the team held its annual Friday Night Lights scrimmage this season, Biermann started the game at outside linebacker in a 4-3 set. He started Atlanta’s first preseason game last Thursday at the same outside linebacker position. He played all but four of his 15 snaps during the first team’s three defensive series at linebacker.
“Kind of what he’s doing right now is really nothing new,” said linebackers coach Glenn Pires. “He’s been a versatile guy on first, second and third downs. He’s really just getting better and picking up where he left off.”
Because Biermann is getting better — some coaches think he’s one of the best on the roster at getting to the opposing quarterback — it is imperative that Nolan finds ways to get Biermann into pass-rushing situations.
Hence, Biermann’s increased use at linebacker. It appears the team thinks his 6-foot-3, 255 pound frame is better suited to rush from the standing position with a little bit of open space between him and potential blockers prior to contact. Biermann said the change has altered some of the things he’s working on in training camp.
“I’ve had to work more on the hands and hand placement and vision,” said Biermann. “Not necessarily so much speed to power.”
With Biermann beginning his pass rush from the linebacker position it gives him more opportunities to use his athleticism. Instead of being locked up with an offensive lineman within one step of the snap of the football, now Biermann can enter that engagement at a higher speed upon initial contact. And he can pick his lane and angle to the quarterback instead of having it dictated to him by a guy 50 pounds heavier.
Even though Biermann is putting in a lot of work at linebacker, his days aren’t over at defensive end. Pires said the team still considers Biermann a lineman first, and head coach Mike Smith agrees.
Smith on many occasions since the beginning of camp has voiced his opinion on the defense in 2013, a unit he wants to be much more flexible so the coaching staff can find ways to attack certain matchups. Biermann’s flexibility to move from linebacker to defensive end and back at a moment’s notice is appealing to the Falcons.
That’s where Nolan’s base 4-3 scheme can easily become a hybrid 3-4 at times. The flexibility and versatility of players like Biermann (as well as defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who is standing up in the pass rush for the first time in his career, and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who is rushing the passer at times in Atlanta’s hybrid looks) are giving the Falcons the tools to become more creative on defense.
Now Biermann must take the opportunities given to him by this defensive creativity and attack the quarterback with more regularity. Biermann has 16.5 sacks over his five-year career and never more than five in a season.