FLOWERY BRANCH -- For as much as the general population of football fans and media remain focused on the Falcons' offense, at least when not focused on what went wrong in the final game, the determining factor in whether they get back to the Super Bowl this season likely will be on the other side of the ball.
The Falcons often played four rookies on defense in 2016 (Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campell, Brian Poole), as well as three first-year players (Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Jalen Collins) and Ricardo Allen (a relative second-year pro who spent the 2014 season on the practice squad).
It was a kiddie corps, and things didn't always go right.
From Jones: "I really didn’t have a clue what was going on."
From Campbell: "I remember around this time I had the jitters."
From Jarrett: "You don't know what you don't know. I can tell you now what I didn’t know my second year, but I can’t look forward to year four and tell you what I don’t know now."
(I'll give you a moment to diagram that last comment. But it makes sense.)
The Falcons open a new season Sunday in Chicago. Cleansing breath.
Coach Dan Quinn has significantly higher expectations for his defense this season after improvement in the second half last year. The Falcons need that because it's logical to assume opposing defenses -- with a year of game film to study -- will have a better idea about how to contain the offense (to some degree).
"I knew going into last year there were going to be some pains (defensively)," Quinn said. "Some growing pains. I felt it was real important to say, we’re going to stick with them and learn from it. That group generally is going to take a big step going from year one to year two, and the guys from year two to three will also (improve). Now they’re more aware of formations and sets. The experience makes a big difference. Even though it’s only their second year, a number of them played 800, 900, 1,000 snaps last year."
Quinn pointed to the jump Beasley and Jarrett made from their respective rookie seasons to last year when projecting the improvement of Jones, Neal, Campbell and Poole. Sacks and tackles aren't the only measuring stick, but Beasley went from four sacks and 20 tackles to 15.5 sacks and 32 tackles.
Jarrett went from backup to starter, recorded three sacks in the regular season and capped his second season with three sacks in the Super Bowl. That would have made him a candidate to be the game's MVP had the Falcons held on.
"It's more about being more confident and more experienced," Jarrett said. "You know what you’re getting into. It’s hard to explain to somebody who hasn’t gone through it."
The Falcons understandably want to move on from last season. It's difficult to get a player or coach to even address the Super Bowl anymore. But you can't illustrate how far the defense needs to come without using that 34-28 overtime loss to New England as a reference point.
The Patriots' first seven offensive drives resulted in four punts, a fumble, an interception and a field goal. Their next five possessions, beginning late in the third quarter, went touchdown-field goal-touchdown-touchdown-touchdown.
There are now hats and T-shirts in the Boston area that read simply, "28-3."
I'm guessing sales are low in Atlanta.
How long does it take to get over that kind of loss?
"A while," Ricardo Allen said.
"It wasn’t like I was thinking, ‘I wish I could go back.' It was more like, man, that was our time. It was one of our chances. It’s more like, that could’ve been another one, another trophy in our case. Because I personally think we'll have a chance later on. ... I’m not making any predictions that we’re going to make it back to the Super Bowl this year. I’m just saying the way this team has developed, the way this team has pushed itself, we are a better team than we were last year. And if we made it to the Super Bowl last year, I’d say we have a fairly good chance of making it pretty far."
Jones said the defense last season was "pretty much just learning how to run. Now we feel like we have enough snaps in our belt to settle down and play every play. We can stay in the moment, knowing how to bounce back from a bad play and celebrate a good play but getting our mind back into the game right away."
Allen again: "We're not changing anything. We just like a fine wine -- it stays in the bottle but it gets better. We played with a lot of rookies last year. I'm not saying that’s why we lost but there was a lot of inexperience out there."
That changes Sunday. And by the end of the Chicago game, everybody will have a new reference point when it comes to "the last game."
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