There are a number of reasons the Atlanta Falcons will play in the Super Bowl on Feb. 5. Matt Ryan has become an elite quarterback, with more options than ever before. His offensive line has developed into a strong unit after years of ordinary lines of scrimmage.
The offense has been historic, and averaging 40 points in the first two postseason games is pretty special. What about the defense? What about the impressive, regular development of a group that already has stopped two very good quarterbacks?
The improvement of Atlanta’s defense can be traced to another big reason the Falcons are headed to Houston. After several questionable (more like mediocre) drafts, the Falcons have had two straight great drafts. The foundation for this defense came from those two groups drafted.
There are three defensive starters from the 2015 draft. Vic Beasley was Atlanta’s first-round draft pick. There was nothing special about Beasley in his rookie season. You had to wonder if he even made one play that stood out in his first year. Things have changed.
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Signing future Hall-of-Famer Dwight Freeney was genius, as the veteran quarterback-chaser has been a huge influence on Beasley. Fans justifiably wondered during the preseason if Beasley struggled again this year would he be labeled a bust. Thankfully for the Falcons, Beasley answered the criticism with a monster second season.
People would have lost a lot of money on betting that Beasley would lead the NFL in sacks, but that’s exactly what he did. Beasley’s 15 1-2 sacks probably will have New England quarterback Tom Brady watching his video closely the next 10 days.
Second-round pick Jalen Collins was thrown into the starting lineup with the season-ending injury to Desmond Trufant, who was believed to be Atlanta’s best defensive player at the start of the season. Collins has responded by becoming the player head coach Dan Quinn thought he’d be when coming out of LSU last year.
The third starter is Grady Jarrett, who was the fifth-round pick in 2015. Jarrett is an undersized defensive tackle who does not get beat on the line of scrimmage very often.
The 2016 draft was led by Florida safety Keanu Neal, who was brought in to replace veteran William Moore. Neal has been very good, as has second-round pick Deion Jones, who some believe has been the most impressive rookie defensive player in the NFL this season as Atlanta’s starting middle linebacker.
Then there’s De’Vondre Campbell, the fourth-rounder who is another starter at linebacker. Plus, when the Falcons go to the nickel package, rookie undrafted free agent Brian Poole steps in and has been very effective.
Who would have ever thought that a team starting four rookies and three second-year players on defense would be in the Super Bowl?
Atlanta’s front office, led by Thomas Dimitroff, deserved criticism for the mediocre drafts from 2012 to 2014. Now, it deserves tremendous credit. And perhaps Quinn is the difference. He is a defensive coach, and it’s obvious he hand-picked many of these players.
We know the type of defense Quinn had in Seattle when the Seahawks went to two straight Super Bowls. He likes versatility and aggressive, rangy and taller defensive backs.
The defense still has work to do. Without Trufant, it gave up more passing yards this season. But the pressure on the quarterback was so much more of the story. Atlanta went from last in the NFL in sacks in 2015 with 19 to 16th in the league with 34.
We know the Falcons are going to score points. They will next week, as well, even against New England. So, Atlanta’s defense will be the key. It stopped Seattle and Russell Wilson and then stopped Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers.
These young defensive players have one more mountain to climb, against one of the best quarterbacks of all time. That’s scary, but it seems dangerous to doubt them, doesn’t it?
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