When head coach Dan Quinn decided to give four rookies significant roles on defense, he knew that group would endure its fair share of adversity. He also knew, however, those players were capable of developing into quality options in 2016 – the kind of options Atlanta needed to take the next step forward.
And with Christmas approaching, that's starting to become clear.
By holding San Francisco to 13 points, the Falcons have surrendered just 18.75 point per game since the bye week. Yes, some of that has to do with the quality of opponents – the Rams and 49ers sport a combined 5-23 record – but nevertheless, the team's Rookie Club has exhibited undeniable growth.
That growth begins with Keanu Neal and Deion Jones, each of whom excelled in Week 15. Their biggest highlight came when they teamed up to create Atlanta lone turnover on Sunday: During the Niners' second possession, Jones popped the pigskin out of Carlos Hyde's arm, and Neal, who began the play lined up on the opposide side of the turf, quickly dove on the loose ball.
Five plays later, Matt Ryan fired a touchdown pass to Taylor Gabriel.
"Every day is a grind," Jones said. "Every day you have to go out there and practice, watch film and put your best foot forward. That's how you get better and that's how you progress on the field. I think we did a good job. I think all the guys bought in, played fast, played physical and played for each other."
Neal had arguably his best NFL performance vs. the 49ers. In addition to his fumble recovery, the No. 17 overall selection was sharp in coverage, allowing just four catches on eight targets for 23 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. He was stout against the run, too, and led the team with 10 tackles.
As of Monday morning, his 64 solo tackles are the most among NFL rookies.
"Well, I thought the first thing with Keanu was the physicality that he showed again," Quinn said. "That's really his style and his identity in that has totally shown up for us. He's one of our better tacklers. He has a real clear understanding of strike zone hitting. We put him in a good bit of time today in some man to man coverage against tight ends and wide receivers and he answered those challenges. I just keep seeing his arrow trending going up.
"I certainly felt the physicalness that he wanted to bring to the game. His intent was right, and I thought really all the defensive backs in general. They're one of the better teams in the NFL in running the football. Carlos Hyde came off a terrific performance last week and Colin Kaepernick has the ability to run it. We knew this was a running team and we'd better be on point with our tackling. That's definitely Keanu's kind of game."
Jones, who notched eight tackles and only gave up one receiving yard on four targets, is next on that rookie leaderboard (62). The second-round pick recently emerged as a leading candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and by providing steady, consistent work in Week 15, he only strengthened his case.
At practice, Jones recently "found his voice, so to speak," according to Quinn, which has allowed the LSU product to do a better job getting information out to his teammates. That communication is key for a middle linebacker – and it's a big reason why Atlanta's defense has improved of late.
"I think our arrow is definitely going up because of the communication," Quinn added. "Communication isn't just directing a guy on what to do, it's passing the information along to the guy that's next to you, and that's where we make the calls come to life."