Defence is Falcons’ point of pride

The Associated Press
Charles Odum

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga.–Ricardo Allen remembers when the Atlanta Falcons’ defence ranked among the worst in the NFL.
That’s not difficult. It was only one year ago when the Falcons ranked near the bottom of the league in total defence and dead last in red-zone stops.
Those memories made Allen smile on Wednesday because defence has become a point of pride for the Falcons, who play at the L.A. Rams in a wild-card game tomorrow night.
For the first time since Atlanta’s first Super Bowl season in 1998, the Falcons (10-6) finished the regular season ranked in the top 10 in scoring defence (19.7) and total defence.
Allen was especially proud to note the Falcons have climbed to No. 5 in the league in red-zone defence.
Unlike 2016, when the Falcons leaned heavily on the NFL’s top-scoring offence for their Super Bowl run, Atlanta takes better balance into this post-season.
“Going from being one of the bottom defences in the league last year . . . it’s big growth,” Allen noted, adding the improvement has come “much faster than I thought it would be.”
The Falcons have emphasized defence in recent drafts, and that commitment has produced results.
Defensive starters added in the last three drafts include linebackers Vic Beasley Jr., Deion Jones, and DeVondre Campbell, and safety Keanu Neal.
Six defensive starters on last year’s defence were first- and second-year players.
Coach Dan Quinn said he has seen second-year players Jones, Campbell, and Neal “take a big step from year one to year two just as you hoped it would happen.”
Jones, Neal, and Campbell are Atlanta’s top three leaders in tackles.
Quinn said he sees better communication on the field through “hand signals, just sometimes an eye contact.”
But Allen says there’s room for more improvement.
“Oh man, if we keep growing and we stay humble and we keep enjoying the process, the sky is the limit,” he remarked.
“I think we can be one of the best defences in the league, for sure.”
Quinn also sees more improvement to come.
“I think this group can take another jump,” he said.
“They’re athletic, they’re tackling well, the communication piece is there, so I’m very hopeful for where that group can go.”
The defensive upswing has been important because the Atlanta offence that led the league in scoring in 2016 has struggled at times this season.
The Falcons’ scoring has dropped from 33.8 to 22.1 points per game.
Atlanta has been held under 30 points in five-straight games, including last week’s 22-10 win over Carolina to clinch a playoff spot.
Kansas City hosts Tennessee tomorrow afternoon in the other wild-card game set for Saturday.
Sunday’s wild-card games pit Buffalo at Jacksonville and then New Orleans hosting Carolina.