It's no secret that Atlanta's defense took major strides during the first year of the Dan Quinn era, going from the bottom of the league in a lot of key areas to the middle of the pack. They surrendered fewer yards, fewer points and were especially good against the run.
The Falcons hope for similar growth in 2016, and through OTAs, the coaching staff is optimistic that will happen.
"Our defense looks much-improved over a year ago right now," defensive coordinator Richard Smith said. "We're making more plays on the ball. I think the reason being from a veteran standpoint, they're in the system for another year, they have a better understanding of what we're doing."
Along with getting players experience in the scheme, the defense has added important pieces through the draft and free agency. Rookies Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell fit the style of football Atlanta preaches; veterans Derrick Shelby and Courtney Upshaw, among others, should be able to carve out important roles this season.
The draft class is a particularly athletic group. By adding so much speed to the defense, a number of issues that plagued Atlanta last year—tackling, rushing the passer, covering tight ends—can be fixed with proper development.
"I think (with) some of the new faces that we have on this team, we look a lot faster than we did a year ago," said Smith. "So I think overall we've been very well pleased with our performance. We're not where we need to be yet, but major strides over a year ago at this time."
While the defense has certainly improved, players and coaches know a lot of work lies ahead, and that any work accomplished during OTAs is only a small step forward.
"I've been real pleased with the progress that we've made, but you're playing in shorts right now. It's a totally different deal. So sometimes you can get real high on a player and say, 'This guy is going to be great,' then the pads come on and the personality changes. There's a long ways to go. But right now, I like the way we're practicing. … Our guys know we can be pretty good."