It was 100 years ago when the illusionist Harry Houdini unveiled one of the greatest tricks of his career: He walked through a brick wall.
No, really. OK, not really. But New York theater audiences apparently weren’t too perceptive in 1914 because even though some in attendance were invited onto the stage to examine the solidness of the wall, nobody noticed the trap door in the floor that later allowed Houdini to quietly drop into a crawl space and climb back up on the other side. Voila!
The Falcons open the regular season Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. I’m thinking their defense this season might require similar illusionary tactics to succeed. They need to create a pass rush and maintain hopes of unearthing this Sasquatch-like rumor known as a sack.
Does the Georgia Dome come equipped with trap doors?
The Falcons’ assistant coach with the greatest challenge this season is defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. The organization has spent most of its money and resources on offense, and the most significant acquisition this offseason was an offensive lineman, tackle Jake Matthews.
That’s Nolan over there in the corner, holding out his mush bowl like Oliver, asking, “Please sir. May I have a pass rusher?”
He has to create pressure with scheme because the simple fact is the defensive depth chart doesn’t have an end or an outside linebacker who’s going to consistently win one-on-one battles. When there is a lack of stars, it forces a coach to be creative. He needs to find ways to bring pressure from different areas, at different times, with different players.
“It’s a greater challenge,” Nolan said. “But at the same time I’m excited about the guys we have doing it. I’ll be real excited if some of the things I’m hopeful of, the maturation of some of the players, comes through.
“It’ll be something to watch. It’s a great topic. Everybody’s talked about it a lot because it is a concern. A year ago we didn’t get much pressure.”
That’s no secret.
Falcons coach Mike Smith downplays the significance of sacks, but that’s what a head coach does when his team finishes 29th in the NFL with only 32 sacks.
Here’s the reality check: Of the league’s top 13 teams in sacks last season, 10 either made the playoffs or just missed via tiebreaker (Arizona at 10-6). Of the 13 teams with the lowest sack totals, 11 missed the playoffs and only two had winning records. Sacks matter.
Nolan is striking the right blend of optimism and realism. He seems as uncertain as everybody as to how this will unfold and what elements of the scheme works. The Falcons increased the girth on their defensive line by signing tackles Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson and drafting Ra’Shede Hageman.
But they’ve lacked a pure pass rusher since John Abraham two years ago. So their plan is to confuse opponents with multiple looks. Create illusions. It doesn’t really matter if they line up in a 3-4, a 4-3 or a 4-2-5 nickel package (likely most prevalent). Their hope is that the large slabs of beef inside will occupy time and space, thereby enabling some combination of ends and outside linebackers to get into the backfield.
The projected “pressure” players: Kroy Biermann, Osi Umenyiora, Jonathan Babineaux, Jonathan Massaquoi, Paul Worrilow and Malliciah Goodman.
The Falcons don’t have an ideal opponent to start with. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees has wrecked this team. He’s 13-4 all-time against the Falcons. He has thrown for 5,140 yards and 34 touchdowns against them. But the statistic that stands out most is Falcons’ dearth of sacks. Brees has been sacked only 15 times in 646 pass attempts, an anemic 2.32 percent. He’s difficult for any defense to get to, but that 2.32 percent is still well below Brees’ career sack percentage of 3.99 percent (271 sacks in 6.799 attempts).
Nolan is looking for the right formula.
“Is it going to happen overnight? I don’t think so,” he said. “But we’re certainly working toward it. You’ve got to get pressure on the quarterback to win.”
Only two teams in the NFL had fewer sacks last season. Only two teams in the NFL had fewer wins. Not a coincidence.
Somehow, they need to get to the other side of the wall.