After overseeing the re-tooling of his unit this offseason, Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nola hopes the makeover will hold up against New Orleans in the season-opener Sunday at the Georgia Dome. The first test is formidible.
“That’s kind of the journey that we are on as far as the defense goes,” Nolan said.
Nolan played a significant role in the redirection of the defense, letting the team’s personnel men know that he wanted to build a unit that was strong up the middle.
The Falcons, who added free agent defensive linemen Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, are set to open the season with six new defensive starters from the unit that lost 23-17 to the Saints in New Orleans to open the 2013 season.
“The big guys up inside have helped us a lot as far as the run game goes for sure,’ said Nolan, who is entering his third season with the Falcons. “Also, we are getting more push on the pocket.”
A primary difference he sees is in the power provided by the two new linemen.
“The maturity also of the guys who are already here (should help),” Nolan said. “Malliciah (Goodman) is one in particular, although he’s an end/tackle kind of a player. He’s improved considerably.”
During the exhibition season, it was clear that the Falcons defense was a work in progress. Things got off to a bumpy start against Miami and Houston but the unit started to see some success in the third exhibition game. In a rare move, the defense played most of the first half in the normally meaningless fourth exhibition game.
“We’ve had over 1,000 reps in training camp,” second-year cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “We are gelling together. But we know that we have to take it to the next level starting this week.”
Linebacker Paul Worrilow didn’t start against the Saints in last year’s opener, but the undrafted rookie from Delaware would later crack the lineup and lead the Falcons with 137 tackles. With the season-ending Achilles injury to linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, Worrilow is the defense’s signal-caller.
He didn’t mind the extra action in the fourth exhibition.
“It was good that everybody was out there,” Worrilow said. “We got off the field twice (on downs). We were successful out there, especially on the first drive, which was a three-and-out.”
Safety William Moore saw the benefit in the extra time.
“Individually, do your thing and try to get better as individuals,” Moore said. “But the No. 1 thing was try to build the chemistry of this defense because most of these guys haven’t been together.”
In addition to Worrilow, Jackson and Soliai, new starters from last season’s opener are slated to be free safety Dwight Lowery, linebacker Joplo Bartu or Prince Shembo and cornerback Robert Alford.
“After the Houston game, we have been working every week trying to create an identity,” Worrilow said. “We do have a lot of new guys who are coming together. We want to put the emphasis on us being physical on every down. I do think that we are coming together well.”
A critical piece is end Osi Umenyiora, who will be used as a designated pass rusher. He spent time in training camp getting used to playing next to tackle Jonathan Babineaux.
“We play well off of each other,” Umenyiora said. “He has a very good feel for the game. I don’t really have to worry about my responsibility so much. I can do what I do and he covers me. I can cover him. We play well together.”
Trufant, who made the Pro Football Writers of America’s all-rookie team last season, also plans to step up his game.
“I definitely look at the game through a different lens now that I’ve got a little bit of experience. I know that I’m still a young player, but the team is expecting me to do big things out there,” Trufant said. “I’m just going to go out there with confidence like I usually do and just make plays when the ball comes my way.”
Whether the makeover is complete gets an answer on Sunday.
“When it gets right down to it, the players are the ones who want to make the plays and have to make them,” Nolan said.
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