Defensive change healthy for Falcons

Monday’s news that defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has left the Falcons for a position at Auburn is probably just the beginning of many changes for Atlanta.

VanGorder had been the coordinator since the arrival of coach Mike Smith in 2008. His defense this season was good, but certainly not great. That was kind of the theme for the entire team, and this is a change that will be healthy for the Falcons in the long run. This team obviously needs some change.

As soon as VanGorder left, speculation started that former Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio could be a possible replacement. That’s very logical. Smith was Del Rio’s defensive coordinator in Jacksonville before taking the Atlanta job. The two have a close relationship, and Del Rio would be a good fit.

Del Rio has only one year of experience as a coordinator. That came with Carolina in the 2002 season, and it was a prosperous year for the Panthers’ defense. Del Rio, a former NFL linebacker, quickly established a reputation for being aggressive.

That’s something the Falcons could use. Their defense was capable of slowing offenses in 2011, but didn’t produce a lot of big plays. Smith obviously has a lot of say in Atlanta’s defense, and he needs to adjust a little bit. Adding an aggressive coordinator would be a step in the right direction.

But the Falcons face some other major decisions on defense. Cornerback Brent Grimes, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, defensive end John Abraham and safety Thomas DeCoud are all potential free agents.

All were starters and key players this season, and I suspect the Falcons at least want to keep Lofton and Grimes. Abraham is aging and could decide to retire. If he wants to continue playing, the Falcons might want him back. Even though he’s slowing down, Abraham still is a strong pass-rusher, and the Falcons need pressure up front.

Atlanta’s defense needs to improve in the secondary and needs to come up with more big plays all around. I doubt Smith will make drastic changes to his scheme. But this defense needs to tweak its personnel in several areas, and needs to come up with a lot more big plays in 2012.