FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Coming off of a season in which the Falcons' defense was sapped by significant injuries to key players early in the year, confidence remains high in what the unit can accomplish with everyone back in the fold.
"When we're all out there, we're a top-10 defense, easily," Falcons safety Ricardo Allen told reporters after Organized Team Activities (OTA) on Thursday. "We've shown it, we've put it out there. We've just got to keep ourselves healthy."
By showing it and putting it out there, Allen is referring to the Falcons' 2017 season, when Atlanta finished as the ninth-ranked defense in yards per game and the eighth-ranked defense in points per game. That year marked the first time Atlanta boasted a top-10 unit in both categories since 1998.
As they had in 2016, the Falcons' defense noticeably improved during the second half of the season and appeared to be playing its best ball entering the postseason. Expectations were high for the defense heading into the 2018 season, but the Falcons lost Allen and fellow starting safety Keanu Neal to season-ending injuries and starting linebacker Deion Jones for 10 games all within their first two games.
While Atlanta's defense struggled without those players on the field, ending last season ranked 28th in yards per game and 25th in points per game, there were some reasons for optimism moving forward.
"What makes me so hype about it is that we had some players that stepped up last year," Allen said. "And with the players we had already who got injured and the players who stepped up … they're still in the mix in between us getting back in. That gave them the confidence and experience to be on the field.
"In the long-run, it's going to help this team go somewhere and win a championship."
Second-year players such as Foye Oluokun, Deadrin Senat and Isaiah Oliver saw plenty of actions during their first season in the league and figure to hold sizeable roles for 2019. Dan Quinn has also assumed the role of defensive coordinator in addition to his head coaching responsibilities, and fans can recall what he did with the defense during the second half of the season.
Atlanta's defense was a cause for concern in 2018, there's no doubt about that. But Allen, at least, still has high expectations for what his unit can achieve.