Falcons will be multiple out of 3-4 base defense

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Falcons outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino discusses plans for Dante Fowler and the status of the unit.

After interviewing the defensive assistants and noting the changes in the position designations on the roster, all signs are pointing to the Falcons switching to a 3-4 base defense for the first time in almost two decades.

Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees said the defense will be multiple, but with Dante Fowler and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner moving from defensive end to outside linebacker, change is in the air.

Since the end of the Dan Reeves era in 2003, the Falcons have operated mostly out of the 4-3 alignment under coaches Jim Mora, Bobby Petrino, Mike Smith and Dan Quinn. Wade Phillips was the last Falcons defensive coordinator to use primarily the 3-4 alignment.

Pees noted that as defensive coordinator he was multiple during his stints with Baltimore (2012-17) and Tennessee (2018-19), while he played more 3-4 while with New England (2006-09).

“The beauty of it is, we’re not going to play a ton of snaps in base defense where we’ve got outside linebackers in the game just based on what we see across the (NFL) now,” outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “When we do play those, yes, (Tuioti-Mariner) is going to be in my group. When we don’t and when we are in some of our (nickel, dime) packages, he’ll be a defensive end that moves around and does some different things.”

Pees, 71, came out of retirement to run the Falcons’ defense.

“I’ve known coach Pees a long time,” secondary coach Jon Hoke said. “I’ve never worked with him, but to see how he looks at things defensively, it’s a little bit different than a lot of people. I’m anxious to really get with the players on the field because it does cause confusion for the opposing team.”

Pees starting coaching in 1979 at Findlay (Ohio). His first move was to Miami of Ohio (1983-86), which is known as the Cradle of Coaches for producing coaching greats Paul Brown, Woody Hayes, Sid Gillman, Ara Parseghian, Bo Schembechler and Jim Tressel.

“So, Dean is a (defensive backs) coach,” Hoke said. “He’s coached the secondary. The way he positions people and the way he uses personnel. … I have not quite seen it to this level. It’s really fascinating to watch and see how he approaches the game. … It’s really pretty interesting.”

One of the more interesting players is outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, who’s 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds. The former LSU star, who was taken sixth overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2013, has carved a role for himself in the NFL over the years.

“Barkevious is a guy that does Barkevious Mingo things,” Monachino said. “In this system, we need a guy who can do Barkevious Mingo things.”

Monachino helped to convince Mingo to sign with the Falcons. They were together in Indianapolis and Chicago.

But what are “Barkevious Mingo” things?

“He has the adaptability from week to week,” Manochino said. “He makes a huge difference in how we organize the roster on game day. (Mingo) is a guy that does a lot of things very well. He was a guy that we needed. I was able to convince him that this was going to be a great spot for him.”

Mingo, who has played on six teams, also will help with the other players.

“It’s nice to have a guy who’s heard some of the language before,” Monachino said.

Fowler, who was drafted third overall by Jacksonville in 2015, played some outside linebacker with the Rams and produced 11.5 sacks during the 2019 season.

“The transition for the other guys coming from a 4-3 defensive end system will be a little bit longer, but with (Mingo) this will be an easy transition,” Monachino said. “He can help me in the room to coach up the other guys.”

Steven Means is not moving from defensive end to outside linebacker. He’s designated simply as a defensive linemen.

“We had Steven Means back in Baltimore years ago, and Steven has some exposure to the system, too,” Monachino said.

Mingo’s versatility is lauded.

“He’s a special-teams player that can play winning defense for you,” Monachio said. “He can play up to 50 to 60 snaps a game. That’s a hard combination to find.”

The outside linebackers in the 3-4 are the proverbial multi-taskers.

“To find that 6-5, 245-pound guy that can run like crazy and cover and unwind things, think while he’s running that fast, those things are valuable in this system especially,” Monachino said. “We are going to need guys who can do that.”

The Falcons believe they can unleash Fowler as a pass rusher.

“About a quarter of our snaps are going to be played with him in a two-point stance, where he’s actually going to have to handle some of the run game, pass game and the coverage part of it,” Monachino said. “The vast majority of his snaps are going to be doing what he was put on this earth to do. Put his hand in the dirt, get his tail end high in the air and go rush after the passer. He’s going to have plenty of chances to do that.”

Fowler, who battled through a high ankle injury and a stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list, produced only three sacks last season.

“I don’t think the people of Atlanta would be very happy if we had Dante Fowler in a bunch of coverage on third down,” Monachino said. “He’s going to be doing what he does best, most often.”

Inside linebackers coach Frank Bush, a native of Athens, has been pleased with Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun on the team’s virtual calls. Brandon Copeland and Mykal Walker also are inside linebackers.

“Ultimately, he’s a big body that can run and hit,” Bush said of Copeland. “A smart kid. We can use him in multiple spots.”

Walker had a strong rookie season in 2020.

“He asks great questions,” Monachino said. “He’s ahead of the curve when it comes to the things we are talking about. I’m excited about him. I liked him coming out of Fresno State. I think he’s got a chance to create a role for himself here with what we do because we are multiple.”

The Falcons finished near the bottom of the NFL in sacks over the past three seasons. The Falcons were tied for 24th with 29 sacks in 2020, 28 sacks (29th) in 2019 and 37 sacks (25th) in 2018.

The last time they had a double-digit sacker was in 2016, when Vic Beasley led the league with 15.5 sacks. Jones led the Falcons with 4.5 in 2020.

“The guys that I’ve had that have worked on the outside on the edges, it was all about effort and violence with those guys,” Monachino said. “Being able to finish at the top of the pocket leads to productive rushes.”

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