After passing up on an edge rusher in the early rounds, the Falcons spent their compensatory 4th round pick on Notre Dame 3-4 outside linebacker Prince Shembo. Over his final two seasons, Shembo accumulated 13 sacks, 29 hurries and 16 tackles for loss. The production is very good, although Shembo wasn’t exactly what Falcons fans had in mind for their next superstar pass rusher. He was more Kroy Biermann than John Abraham.
There were concerns about his ability to stay on the edge in the NFL, as evaluators deemed his skillset to be quite uninspiring, and that a shift to the inside might be better suited for him. There wasn’t the sheer explosiveness or power to his game to dominate offensive tackles as a pure pass rusher. Nevertheless, virtually the entire Falcons fanbase expected him to stay as an OLB. After all, an edge rusher was perceived to be the biggest defensive need heading into the draft and none were selected with the first 4 picks. But Vaughn McClure’s quote regarding Shembo from defensive coordinator Mike Nolan left a few heads scratching.
“We had a position move [from outside linebacker to inside]. I think it helps us and it helps him. I think he’s better suited to play the inside more than he is the outside. His skills are more for the inside than the outside.”
This leads to a multitude of questions. Was this the plan all along? I doubt it, as the Falcons traded up for a traditional linebacker in Marquis Spruill later on. Tyler Starr was another OLB drafted, but that was at the end of the 7th round. Surely they wouldn’t leave it that late? By all means, I think the Falcons drafted Prince Shembo to be an OLB although OTAs seemed to have swayed the coaches’ minds.
If Shembo does stay on the inside like Nolan said, that leaves the Falcons awfully thin at OLB. It would mean the only addition at OLB this offseason was Tyler Starr. I am a fan of Jonathan Massaquoi going forward, but the group isn’t exactly thrilling. Biermann is coming off a bad injury where he tore his Achillies and Osi Umenyiora is slowing down. Stansly Maponga had no real impact last year, and Malliciah Goodman would probably be better suited to keeping his hands in the dirt as a 5-tech. Doesn’t sound too good, does it?
I wouldn’t write off the defense just yet. There does appear to be a sound idea behind it, and it all goes back to a little something Nolan said when he first got here.
“I would rather have 10 guys get four sacks then only four guys get 10 sacks each because it’s a lot more difficult for an offense to look at your entire defense and say ‘We’ve got to block them all guys. That guy might come, that guy might come.’”
That little quote has stuck with me since, and I think we’ll see it in form this upcoming season. Nolan hints at preferring confusion with the blitz to attack quarterbacks; using linebackers with pass rush potential rather than true pass rushers. Sean Weatherspoon is a good blitzer but no one is going to confuse him for being a pass rusher. That seems to be the theme with the inside linebacker corps as a whole. Prince Shembo maybe didn’t have the tools to rush from the edge every down but he should be fine providing pressure on the occasional blitz. Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu proved to be effective blitzers last year too. It doesn’t appear like Nolan’s scheme requires elite pass rushers but rather, athletic and smart players that can get after the quarterback.
In a scheme like this, it’s imperative there are multiple players that can blitz effectively and finish plays – Something the Falcons do have. Furthermore, the addition of Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson and their ability to occupy multiple blockers will help clear paths for blitzing players coming in from any given direction. This is not going to be a bog-standard 4-3 or 3-4 scheme, where you can get a good idea of who will be attacking the QB and who won’t every down. It will be an exotic and attacking defense, one that should be very exciting to see in action. Nolan has tried to do this before but the lack of personnel seems to have limited him. I think he believes he has all the pieces he needs now to run his scheme the way he wants.
However, this is still a gamble. Nolan is obviously very confident in himself and his scheme to make this work without an established edge rusher. It could backfire on him, and could spell his time as the Falcons defensive coordinator. I know I’m in the minority here, but I do prefer having good defensive backs than good pass rushers. Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine has been quoted recently thinking the same way. My reasoning, and I’m sure Pettine’s also, is that a good defensive coordinator can scheme pressure but he can’t scheme coverage.
The way this Falcons defense has been built, I’m inclined to believe that is Nolan’s thinking too. For his sake and the Falcons’, I hope his gamble pays off.