FLOWERY BRANCH — Coach Mike Smith hopes defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has a full complement of healthy players after the Atlanta Falcons endured so many injuries last year.
Smith still cringes when he watches the film of a 4-12 season and a defense that ranked last in third-down efficiency, second-worst against the run and third-fewest in sacks.
"It wasn't a whole lot of fun to have a bunch of rookies out there, but this year they've got games under their belt," Smith said on Wednesday. "There were times last year that we looked out there and we had seven rookies on defense. That's going to benefit us in the future."
Smith has cited a total breakdown in the toughness of his offense, defense and special teams, but it's the defense that's getting the biggest overhaul during offseason training activities this month.
Self-evaluation has shown Nolan and head coach Mike Smith that the Falcons must improve the frequency and effectiveness of pre-snap looks they show opponents.
That's why one major change has outside linebackers lining up in a three-point stance.
The Falcons want to disguise how many pass rushers will be deployed, and it will be up to Jonathan Massaquoi, Osi Umenyiora, Stansly Maponga and a healthy Kroy Biermann to make the plans work.
All four players are career defensive ends, but using them at outside linebacker on about 65 percent of their snaps will give Nolan more flexibility when calling plays.
"It's always about the players," Nolan said. "It always will be. What we do in the multiple sense is that intention all the time — whatever makes up your squad that you have ability to utilize your guys."
A myriad of problems contributed to last year's demise:
— Starting linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, starting defensive end Biermann and starting defensive tackle Corey Peters missed multiple games with injuries.
— Cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Stephen Nicholas played their way out of starting jobs, and former Pro Bowl free safety Thomas DeCoud was such a disappointment that the Falcons released him in winter.
— Too many missed tackles, blown coverages and missed assignments caused widespread embarrassment.
"We have to put that behind us because that's life," said Umenyiora, last year's leader in sacks with 7.5. "We came in with a lot of expectations. Obviously we failed to meet those. This is going to be a brand new year."
The Falcons' defensive rebuilding began with the firing of line coach Ray Hamilton the day after last season ended. Smith hired Bryan Cox to oversee the line and created a new spot on his staff for an outside linebackers coach, moving Mark Collins from assistant line coach into the new job.
In free agency, Atlanta signed veterans Tyson Jackson, a fifth-year starting end from Kansas City, and seventh-year tackle Paul Soliai from Miami. Free safety Dwight Lowery, a sixth-year veteran from Jacksonville, was added, too.
Early in the draft, the Falcons picked Dezmen Southward to compete with Lowery and Ra'Shede Hageman to compete with Jackson. Later-round picks Prince Shembo and Yawin Smallwood were added to the mix at linebacker, where Sean Weatherspoon will start at one inside spot and the other will likely be decided between Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu.
But as to how and where personnel line up will depend on what play the Falcons call as it relates to an offensive formation.
"I can assure you this," Smith said. "Everyone's been talking about 3-4, 4-3. We're going to be an 11-man defense. I can promise you that. Where they're going to line up and how they're going to line up is going to be very flexible and very fluid in how we're going to do it."