FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – With well-known stars like Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman the Falcons' offense has garnered much of the attention in recent years. After the ascent the Falcons' defense had in 2017, however, they deserve plenty of the spotlight as well.
Atlanta's defense finished as a top-10 unit in both total and scoring defense, allowing 318.4 yards and 19.7 points per game. Not since 1998 – nearly a full 20 years – has a Falcons defense finished ranked in the top 10 in both of those categories. It's now a matter of determining just how good this group can become.
"We can be great," Falcons safety Keanu Neal said. "The sky is the limit for us. We just stay together, continue to work, continue to build on what we started.
"I know what we can be. Like I said, we're not finished. We're still growing, we're still building on what we started. That's a cool accolade [the top-10 finish], but that's not just where we want to be."
There's reason to believe we haven't yet seen the best of this unit. Neal and linebacker Deion Jones were named to the Pro Bowl in just their second season, and they are surrounded by proven players who are each capable of making an impact at any given moment.
Improvement is a word that can accurately describe the Falcons' defense over the past two seasons. After finding their stride late in 2016, the Falcons carried that into the 2017 season and did not allow more than 23 points over their final six regular season games. In the playoffs, they held the highest-scoring offense in the league to just 13 points and the eventual Super Bowl champs to 15 points.
Now, the players are working on making specific improvements to their games by evaluating what they call point-of-attack tapes with the coaching staff. For Neal, who has 113 tackles, six pass defenses, four tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception, there are a couple of specific things he's working on. "One of the things was missed tackles," Neal said. "I think my aggressive nature, just knowing when to make the for-sure tackle. That's one thing that they mentioned to me. Also, making plays on the ball. That's also something that I've been working a lot on this offseason – just catching and things like that. Like I said, I'm excited for this year."