When the Falcons decided to start four rookies on defense, they knew it'd take time for that group to mesh. They also knew when the young players learned Atlanta's scheme inside and out, it'd only be a matter of time before the numbers would significantly improve.
And that's exactly what's happened. In the Falcons' first 10 games of the regular season, they gave up 28.3 points per game. In their next six contests, however, they allowed just 20.5 points per game.
That success has continued in the playoffs: When facing a pair of dangerous offenses led by Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers, Atlanta surrendered 20 and 21 points to Seattle and Green Bay, respectively.
Altogether, only one team (the Saints) scored more than three touchdowns against the Falcons in the last month and a half.
"I don't think it was a lack of confidence that we've ever had. It was a good mixture between zone and man that we like to do. We're just playing things better. It's not that we're doing things differently, but we're doing them better," head coach Dan Quinn said Monday.
"That comes with more reps, that comes with more time, and we've put in that time. We do it at practice, we do it after practice. And finding those edges to improve on, that's what we do today again. What part of your game do you want to work on this week? And all of us will have one small thing to do. So playing more man-to-man or less depends on a little bit on the game plan. But for last week, that was a factor for us going in."
Since the start of 2016, the quartet of rookies -- Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell and Brian Poole -- have all improved. Neal and Jones are the only two rookies who amassed 100 tackles during the regular season, and both are legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates.
Campbell has overcome some injuries and played has been especially sharp in the postseason. He was particularly stout in coverage vs. Seattle and was one of Atlanta's best run stoppers on Sunday.
And Poole, thanks to his quickness and physicality, has become a reliable nickel back from Week 1 through the NFC Championship. "Every day we are just trying to get one percent better for the guy next to us," Poole said. "Every play, we are going to give it all we got and not let our boys down. We've had the energy and weren't worried about people trying to talk about us. We just went out there trying to play ball and let people know that what we've got is serious."
In addition to those four, Atlanta is starting three second-year players on D: Vic Beasley Jr., Grady Jarrett and Jalen Collins.
Beasley, the NFL sack leader, and Jarrett, a productive nose tackle in all situations, have taken the defensive line to a new level. Unlike those two Collins didn't enter the season atop Atlanta's depth chart, but after Desmond Trufant was placed on injured reserve, the 2015 second-rounder has stepped up in a big way: In his last four games, Collins has given up only 18 catches on 34 targets, forced a fumble, recovered that fumble and snagged a pair of interceptions.
"We feel like we have potential to be a great defense," Beasley said. "Early in the season, we weren't playing as well but we came a long way and are now going to the Super Bowl."