As long as Matt Ryan is healthy at quarterback, the Falcons offense is going to be a well-oiled machine once again. The biggest questions surrounding Atlanta are on the defensive side, but this time Dan Quinn’s group should have a resounding response to their Super Bowl collapse.
The Falcons defense ranked 26th in yards allowed and 27th in points allowed, but those numbers do not show the vast improvement this defense made over the course of the season. It was not until after the injury to pro-bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant, that the defense began to click. Second-year player Jalen Collins stepped up in his place and began proving critics wrong immediately with his play. Rookies Keanu Neal, Brian Poole, and Deion Jones, who were playing like rookies in the early weeks, began playing like all-pro caliber players. By the time the postseason began, the Atlanta defense was quietly one of the best in the entire of the NFL.
There were still some flaws, however, and they showed up big-time in the second half of the Super Bowl. Tom Brady was able to pick apart a defense that was starting eight players in their first or second years. Experience is key, and the youth of the Falcons defense showed. Another year of experience for these talented youthful players, along with an influx of new talent, should put this Falcons defense near the top 10 of the league in 2017.
It seems like it is only a matter of time before Dan Quinn puts together a stellar defense in Atlanta. The former orchestrator of the Legion of Boom in Seattle is piecing together the same fast and physical style of defense in the Southeast. Not many expected to see those type of results on the defensive side as early as last year, but the Atlanta defense evolved and it all started up front.
The Falcons defense was last in sacks over the span of the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Thus, they had one of the worst defenses in the league. That finally changed in week 5 of last season when Vic Beasley broke onto the scene as one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. His 3.5 sacks that day were just the beginning of his breakout year where he led the league in sacks. Then there is Grady Jarrett, Beasley’s college teammate, who Atlanta selected in the 5th round of the same draft. Jarrett earned his spot as a starter this season and totaled 48 tackles with 3 sacks in the regular season, but it was his Super Bowl performance that showcased his eye-popping potential. Jarrett had 3 sacks alone in the big game, and would have had a great chance at Super Bowl MVP had the Falcons won. The two led a defense that recorded 34 sacks last season, far better than the 19 they had in 2015.
The one glaring problem around the defensive line in 2016 was depth. After Adrian Clayborn sustained a season-ending injury, the Falcons were lacking big bodies that could get after the quarterback. Atlanta addressed that this offseason. They spent their first-round pick on Takkarist McKinley, an edge-rusher out of UCLA. The former Bruin should have an immediate impact on the defense and will benefit tremendously from playing across from Vic Beasley Jr. It is easy to stop one great pass rusher, but two can be nearly impossible. McKinley looks to have all-pro potential. They also added former all-pro defensive tackle Dontari Poe in the offseason on a one-year deal. Poe was a steal for $8 million dollars and will help tremendously in the run game.
Wait, there is more.
The Falcons signed Jack Crawford to a three-year deal in the offseason and have both Adrian Clayborn and Derrick Shelby returning from injuries. The Falcons defensive line will be one of the scariest in the league from top to bottom.
That pass-rush is going to benefit from what will also be one of the better secondaries in the league. Returning from shoulder surgery and with a much larger wallet, the injection of Desmond Trufant back into the lineup will make it hard for any receiving core to find space. Jalen Collins emerged as a legitimate starting cornerback as Trufant’s replacement last season. Dan Quinn loves his large frame and physicality for an outside corner. His progressions since being drafted has the future for this group looking as bright as ever. The Falcons just extended both Trufant and Robert Alford to five-year deals.
Once again, there is more.
Atlanta got huge contributions from undrafted free agent rookie Brian Poole last season. He played in all 16 games for the Falcons as the nickel corner and was among the leaders in bonus pay for production in the NFL. He looks to be just another diamond in the rough that Dan Quinn has been able to find late in the draft, and in this case, after the draft.
To add to their already stacked group of cornerbacks, the Falcons drafted Demontae Kazee out of San Diego State in the fifth round. Kazee, a four-year player for the Aztecs, only messed around and snagged 15 interceptions in his final two seasons. His ball skills are out of this world. ESPN draft expert, Mel Kiper, thinks Kazee could have an impact on this Falcons defense as early as this season.
Last but certainly not least, Keanu Neal was an amazing addition as rookie. There is room for Neal to improve in pass coverage, but that is not what Neal was drafted to do. He was drafted to be the enforcer at the back end of the defense, and Neal excelled in this area. He forced six fumbles and delivered some of the most bone-crushing hits in the NFL last season. The future is bright for this former Florida Gator.
If there is a weak link to this defense, it lies with the linebacking core. Atlanta chose to start both Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell as rookies last season. Both experienced growing pains, but both produced nicely for rookies. Deion Jones started 13 games for the Falcons and was a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. Jones looks to be another A+ pick for the Falcons and will be a force in the middle of the defense for years to come. Campbell showcased his fast and physical nature on his way to earning a starting spot. He might not be as polished as Jones, but the potential is there, and the fact both guys started as rookies is a wonderful sign for the future of the linebacking core.
Atlanta also added to this young core with their third-round selection out of LSU. Duke Riley ran the fastest 40-time of projected linebackers at the combine. He only started one-year for the Tigers, but the instincts are there and he led the defense in tackles with 93. Many considered this pick a steal at #75. Given the way Quinn handled both of his rookie linebackers last season, my money is on Riley becoming highly involved in the rotation rather quickly.
Dan Quinn has built an Atlanta defense that is youthful and hungrier than ever. The amount of improvement that happened over the course of last season is reason to be excited. After the bye week in week 11, Atlanta gave up only 20.5 points per game. Insert a trio of highly talented players in Trufant, Poe and McKinley, and this group is ready to take the next step to the elite level. The Falcons defense is full of budding stars. It is just a matter of time before Dan Quinn has one of the most feared defenses in the league to pair with his high-powered offense.