I know everyone wanted Mario Williams or some other (younger) beast. But let's get real - we can't afford it. I'm surprised we could even afford Abraham. Apparently he came way down on his asking price.
The bottom line on getting John Abraham back is that our pass rush will at least not be any worse than it was last year. So should we still feel down about our defensive line?
The coaching staff has told us that Ray Edwards played through injury all season and wasn't 100%. At this point, comments from our coaching staff and front office don't carry as much weight as they did in 2008. I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm ready to stop listening completely and blow off everything they say during the offseason.
But we know Edwards had knee surgery before last season (and missed training camp because of it), so that part of it is easy enough to believe. Will he be another beast in 2012? Probably not. But he should be better this year than he was last year. That part should be a minor upgrade.
I'd say the major upgrade is Mike Nolan. Changes to the scheme will help all our defensive linemen. Of course, that's the big unanswered question - whether Nolan can get more out of Abraham, Edwards, Kroy Biermann, Lawrence Sidbury and Cliff Matthews than Brian VanGorder did.
I frequently wanted to smash hotel TV screens watching BVG's idiotic blitz designs. I can't help but think that whatever tweaks Nolan makes to the defense, they'll have to be improvements. Smitty and Dimitroff both raved that "the arrow was up" with BVG.
But then again, they poured massive resources into the defense for years, and the best that BVG could do was get the defense to middle of the pack - with a far below average pass rush. So chalk all that praise up to simple kindness for those who have moved on. That's Arthur Blank's way, and it's the way of his organization.
Can Sidbury and Matthews step up? El Sid finally got to play last year and excelled in limited playing time. I'm looking forward to seeing how he does in Nolan's scheme. The coaching staff was also stoked about Cliff Matthews in training camp last year. But naturally, they stuck him on the inactive list even after he returned from his preseason injury, just like they had done with Sidbury in 2010. It's rather difficult for these guys to pressure opposing QBs when they're stuck on the bench.
My take: we actually DO have the pieces in place for a decent pass rush. It's simply up to our new DC to put those pieces together and make it work.
Two elements that I'm hoping we'll see in Nolan's scheme: press coverage and the dime package. Assuming we land another competent DB to pull off the dime package, both of those items could help Atlanta's defense significantly.
In particular, jamming receivers might do wonders for Kroy Biermann. KB had been among the league leaders in QB hits and pressures in 2010, but he has remained one step shy of getting the QB on the ground. If the DBs can prevent the receivers from getting into their routes cleanly, that buys an extra second for the pass rush to get to the QB. (For those new to the board, that's the cornerstone principle behind the "Tampa Two" defense.)
It might also help Chris Owens. Think back to his rookie season. When injuries to Chris Houston and Brian Williams forced the team to start Brent Grimes and Owens, they had the kiddies play aggressively and press. Owens stood out as an impressive rookie playing in that style. But in 2010, the team went back to BVG's favorite pillow-soft cushions. Give a slot receiver 8+ yards of open space, and all Owens could do was play follow-the-leader. He was awful.
He'll be playing the final year of his rookie contract this season, and his career is pretty much on the line. Let him play the aggressive style that worked for him in college and in his rookie season here.
The benefit of the dime package would be that each eligible receiver (including TEs and RBs) would have a man lining up on him (which works hand in hand with press coverage), one extra safety would be in reserve over the top, and there would still be five defenders to rush the passer on a blitz. Alternately, the team could go with a four man rush, assign the LB to the running back, and keep a second safety back for a standard cover two shell.
This is a key element of the Texans defense. They don't even bother with the nickel package. They go straight from their base package to a dime package, with four defensive linemen, one linebacker, and the six DBs. It was extremely effective for them last season.