Read this before you call me crazy. Out of all 32 teams in the NFL, Atlanta ranks 27th in scoring defense and 25th in total yards allowed. I’m going to admit that is not what many want out of their defense. This defense is young, and led with veterans such as Dwight Freeney and Jonathan Babineaux, but this defense is built with players in their first three years playing in the NFL. They are coming into their own in finding their identity, and they will continue to progress each and every year.
While the defense has allowed many points and yards this season, they have found ways to make up for their performance. They rank fourth in the entire NFL in takeaways with 22. With 12 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries, the Falcons seem to have found their niche. There is no denying this team is predicated on it’s offensive success. Dan Quinn’s defense is not the best on paper, but they are effective in giving their offense opportunities in order to put up more points.
In the 2016 NFL Draft, the Falcons selected Safety Keanu Neal with the 17th selection. Many had their doubts on Neal, but the man is an absolute beast. Neal has 106 tackles with five forced fumbles. Not to mention, opposing offensive players always have #22 in the back of their mind when they go to catch a ball in the middle of the field. Here is an example of what it looks like to get hit by Neal.
KEANU NEAL DESTROYED WILLIE SNEAD #NOvsATL pic.twitter.com/ze7gOnGrzl
— Rise Up Reader (@RiseUpReader) January 2, 2017
Another reason why Neal is an exceptional talent is his will to stay in plays. Where it looks like teams will have an easy catch, first down, or touchdown, Neal is always doing his best to prevent opposing teams to convert those opportunities. One of the most impressive plays all year was against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles ran a screen pass to tight end Brent Celek, and he had three blockers vs one defender in Neal. Below is the play that ensues.
Keanu Neal not only makes a nearly impossible play (avoiding Jason Peters), he also forces a fumble. Ridiculous. #Falcons #ATLvsPHI #RiseUp pic.twitter.com/mslauon1yT
— Rise Up Reader (@RiseUpReader) November 15, 2016
Second-round selection Deion Jones has also played at such an exceptional level that many believe he is in contention for defensive rookie of the year. With two interception returns for touchdowns and 108 total tackles, he has been able to not only create turnovers, but put points on the board. Starting beside Jones is fourth-round selection De’Vondre Campbell, who has surpassed expectations in his rookie season. These two players look to hold down the linebacking core for years to come.
Neal is not the only young guy roaming in the Falcons secondary. Atlanta has young playmakers named Ricardo Allen, Jalen Collins, and Brian Poole. Allen is technically in his third season, but he has only played two years in the NFL. At free safety, Allen has been flying around this year, and has made several key tackles and pass-breakups for the defense. Him and Neal have grown and will continue to feed off each others play, which is dangerous for opposing offenses. They are starting to become one of the best safety duos in the NFL.
The young cornerbacks have played exceptionally well, including undrafted free agent Brian Poole and 2015 second-round selection Jalen Collins. Some questioned the Collins pick, myself included, but he has progressed in every game he has played in. He has an interception in each of the last two games, and he will look to carry that momentum into the postseason. Poole has made some unbelievable plays so far, and what people need to realize is this guy went undrafted! Having ties with Florida, Quinn scooped Poole right on up and gave him a chance. He has been a great nickel cornerback for the team, and below is an example of what he has done.
And let’s not forget about the young guys playing in the trenches. Grady Jarrett and Vic Beasley have been absolutely incredible, and will continue to develop every game. Jarrett was the steal of the 2015 NFL Draft, as he was a fifth-round pick. He was a great defensive tackle at Clemson and fell right into the Falcons lap. Jarrett has played very solid against the run and the pass, and has found ways to open up holes for his defensive ends to get to the quarterback. Jarrett also has had 3 sacks and had 15 quarterback hurries, which has forced opposing quarterbacks to make crucial decisions very quickly. He has been a very superb defensive tackle, and will look to become dominant very soon.
Let us not forget about the greatest surprise on this Falcons team. Vic Beasley, the so-called bust after his rookie season, has become the official NFL sack leader of the 2016 season. Beasley is the heart of this defense, and he has made crucial plays in key situations in order to help this team win. Against the San Diego Chargers in Week 7, Beasley uses his exceptional speed and elusiveness to beat the offensive tackle. In the video below, not only does he get to the quarterback, but he forces one of his six forced fumbles, creating a scoring opportunity for his defense.
Vic Beasley looks explosive, athletic, and confident. No wonder he leads the NFC in sacks. #Falcons #SDvsATL pic.twitter.com/GnCMQnhA2i
— Rise Up Reader (@RiseUpReader) October 31, 2016
The Falcons have completed far-fetched tasks this season. Winning the NFC South, making the playoffs, and clinching a first-round bye. Now comes their toughest task: Going 3-0 in order to win the Super Bowl. This defense has young players, but these Falcons listed above are some of the key reasons this team has played the way they have. These coaches have instilled their trust in them, opting to go with young over veteran experience. Every player has had their growing pains, but without getting their feet wet, the outlook of this season is not the same.
This defense is capable of helping lead this team to the Super Bowl. This is the test and pressure these players need. Creating turnovers, making the right plays, and getting pressure on the opposing quarterback is what needs to be the focus. Giving our offense opportunities is the most important part of this postseason, and the defense will have to find ways to do just that. This defense is built for the future, as they have grown not just individuals but as an individual unit. But one thing is clear right now, and that is winning Super Bowl 51.