FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – In the span of one season, the Falcons' defense went from being considered a young, promising unit with a lot of potential to earning respect as a top-10 defense with several emerging stars.
Linebacker Deion Jones has become one of the most well-known members of the defense, garnering a trip to the Pro Bowl in just his second season – accompanied by his draft classmate, safety Keanu Neal – while possessing a versatile skill set and a penchant for making clutch plays.
Although there are a number of individual players on the Falcons' defense who have become highly regarded, it's been a strong group mentality that has helped the unit blossom.
"It's fun," Jones said of being part of a young defense that is collectively improving. "It seems like the light bulb goes off with each and every one of us almost every day, especially practicing and going through situations on the run and coming back and learning from it. We figure out ways to play it better and make it our own style, bring it into a way that we'll play best in it. I think that's the fun part of it, just coming up with our own swagger, our own demeanor and putting it on film."
Now entering Year 4 under Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, many of the team's defenders have gained familiarity with the system and each other. With that familiarity has come both individual and overall success.
The Falcons had three defenders among the NFC players with the most tackles last season: Jones at No. 2 with 138, Neal tied at No. 6 with 113 and linebacker De'Vondre Campbell at No. 17 with 92. All three of those players were members of the Falcons' 2016 draft class, and they, alongside cornerback Brian Poole, who was signed as a college free agent that same offseason, have grown into key pieces of the defense.
On the defensive line, the Falcons boast one of the league's top young defensive tackles in Grady Jarrett, a former NFL sack champion in defensive end Vic Beasley and defensive end Takkarist McKinley, who finished with six sacks in his first year – one shy of tying the team's all-time rookie record. In the secondary, they have one Pro Bowl corner in Desmond Trufant and another, Robert Alford, who is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, as well as an intelligent, intuitive free safety in Ricardo Allen.
There are a lot of exciting individual parts to the defense, but they've grown together to create some serious momentum for the Falcons on that side of the ball. Now, Jones says the way to stay on the right path is to keep doing what's gotten them this far.
"I feel like it's getting more comfortable with the system," Jones said. "Guys knowing their role and knowing what we have to do, and just building off the foundation that we set off last year and continuing to build from there and becoming the defense that we want to be."
And as for the defense Jones wants, he's got an idea in mind. "A great one," he said. "That's about it. Being feared, flying around, having a demeanor on the field and just bringing that forward every week."