FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons' defensive front soared in the first preseason game against the Miami Dolphins.
And that was without most of the starters.
"Oh, man," Falcons defensive lineman Albert Huggins said Sunday. "I think we could be great."
It may have been just a glimpse of what's to come, but Huggins recorded four tackles and a half sack contributing to the team's total five sacks. The Falcons also captured three inceptions — including a pick-6 — and eight tackles for loss.
Beyond the boxscore, Atlanta's defense made clutch stops in the red zone, stopping Miami with two turnovers on downs and an interception deep in Falcons territory.
The defense is under new management with defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen taking the reigns this offseason after six seasons with the New Orleans Saints.
Huggins first met with Nielsen down in New Orleans in 2021. The prospect of working with Nielsen again had a lot to do with the lineman signing with the Falcons.
"He's the reason why I'm here," Huggins said. "He believes in me, and so I got to believe in him and the process."
David Onyemata also followed Nielsen from the Saints after seven seasons in Louisiana. The signings of Onyemata and six-time Pro Bowler Calais Campbell highlighted Nielsen's new and improved defensive front.
It has resulted thus far in a more aggressive defense, if asking defensive end Timmy Horne. Horne started five games last season after making the team past training camp.
Horne sees a difference in the mindset and technique compared to last season. For reference, the Falcons ranked bottom half of the pack in both points (No. 23) and yards (No. 27) allowed in 2022.
While Campbell and Onyemata are likely locks on the Falcons' 53-man roster, Huggins and Horne are not. The two veteran defensive linemen have years of experience that Horne is trying to soak up.
"We just ask them, 'How can I get better? How would you play this differently?'" Horne said.
Falcons coach Arthur Smith liked the intensity of the backups both in practice and against the Dolphins.
"We feel like we got a lot of depth in the D-line," Smith said. "Somebody's going to emerge that's going to be in that rotation that's going to help us."
In the meantime, Campbell and Onyemata will likely see the field when the Falcons take on the Cincinnati Bengals at home Friday. Smith has already said the starters will play if healthy.
Possibly getting the full first-team defensive line will provide a better sample size to measure the defense after just one preseason game where hardly any starters emerged from either sideline. Only then will the Falcons know whether they're truly got something special cooking here in Atlanta.
"I think we have a good a great opportunity to be a great defensive line," Huggins said. "A lot of the guys get along together very well. We got each other's backs."