When the Falcons take the field at NRG Stadium on Feb. 5, they could become the first team to ever start four rookie defenders in a Super Bowl.
Two of those first-years, SS Keanu Neal and CB Brian Poole, are important parts of Atlanta's secondary. So is 2015 Rookie Club member Jalen Collins: a cornerback filling in for the injured Desmond Trufant. And Ricardo Allen, drafted in 2014 and in his second campaign at free safety, will get the starting nod, as well.
This young defensive backfield -- which features one bona fide veteran, 28-year-old Robert Alford -- calls itself the Misfits because, as Allen said Thursday, "We were not supposed to be here." But after containing Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers in consecutive weeks, that group has done its part to get the Falcons to Houston.
Behind that success is Marquand Manuel, the Falcons' defensive backs coach and a former safety who played eight seasons in the NFL. Manuel was known for his fiery edge as a player, and according to Dan Quinn, maintaining that intensity has helped him thrive as a coach.
"Some of the guys who played in this league are fantastic competitors, but it doesn't always translate into the teaching. It doesn't always translate into the work ethic of all the stuff you have to do to put in. In his case, it certainly has," Quinn said.
Manuel's passion, which Allen, Poole and Quinn said is contagious, is his most obvious trait. But that alone isn't enough to make a quality coach. To Atlanta's players and staff, the high expectations he sets -- and his unwillingness to alter them -- are what make him a unique instructor.
"Marquand is the same coach every day," Allen said. "You know exactly what you're going to get every day. He's doesn't give in, he doesn't budge. Nobody gets a pass. He comes to work every day, and if it's not our standard, and if it's not perfect, he's going to let you know that every day. It doesn't matter if it's walkthrough, it doesn't matter what it is. He's going to let you know. That's the kind of coach he is.
"Yes, he's really tough in practice, but it makes the games easy. He never puts us in a compromising position. He knows that from his own play what's tough to do. So you can't tell a guy to go out there and just play zero coverage all day because that's not going to work. You're going to get beat; these are NFL players. He understands that kind of stuff. He doesn't just tell you to do something and it may be impossible to do but expects you to get it done. He knows what it takes."
Atlanta surrendered just 225 passing yards to Russell Wilson in the Divisional Round, and in the NFC Championship Game, Aaron Rodgers threw for a modest 287 yards against the Falcons. Tom Brady will present another difficult challenge to a youthful secondary. But with Manuel's guidance, the Falcons are confident they'll be well-prepared.
"It's the communication, the training. He doesn't back off. The players know that. They're very perceptive. All players are. 'What can I get away with him?' Not very much. We've got lots of respect for the way Marquand takes care of his side," Quinn said. "His fire's lit, and it does not go out. He's a really passionate guy. Honestly, it's just somebody that's always constantly challenging to see if it can get done a little bit better. And honestly, that's what the essence of a competitor is."