Matt Ryan and Julio Jones: The /www.pro-football-reference.com/leaders/pass_rating_single_season.htm"}}">fifth-best single-season passer rating in NFL history. The only wideout in the NFL to average over 100 yards receiving per game in the 2016 regular season.
One is poised to be the league’s MVP. The other is possibly the best receiver of his generation.
When we think about the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, we think about a high octane, explosive offense. Even Las Vegas has set the over/under at 57.5 ― undoubtedly due in large part to Tom Brady and the Patriots’ own offensive prowess ― the highest total in Super Bowl history.
But somewhat unexpectedly, it has been Atlanta’s defense that has served as an anchor for the team.
Without question, the Falcons’ defensive strengths are speed and tackling (two of the reasons why I highlighted them as unheralded championship contenders in October). Man coverage is one way to effectively maximize such strengths.
Second-year cornerback Jalen Collins and hard-hitting undrafted rookie free agent Brian Poole aren’t yet shutdown corners, but both have become physical and deft in coverage, deploying complex concepts and skipping the normal growth curve of young players. Remember, too, that the pair has been pressed into action following the November announcement that Desmond Trufant ― arguably the best cover man in pro football ― would be sidelined the remainder of the season with a torn pectoral.
Better yet, Atlanta features one of the league’s premier lines of defense in playmaking safeties Ricardo Allen and bruising standout Keanu Neal ― a clone of Kam Chancellor, whom Quinn hopes to model after.
Neal’s five forced fumbles lead all rookies, and his 106 tackles are second. Then there is the matter of outside linebacker Deion Jones, the rangy second-rounder out of LSU. Jones leads all rookies with 108 tackles and is tied for first with three interceptions, two of which have gone for touchdowns (also ranking first).
Since their midseason bye week, Atlanta has rattled off seven victories in eight games, surrendering only 20.5 points per matchup, to go along with a healthy 17 sacks and 16 forced turnovers. The scorching hot Packers, for example, only managed 21 points on two turnovers and two sacks, failing to even get on the scoreboard until 9:19 left in the third quarter, the longest it took a previously untouchable Rodgers to score all year.
Quinn offered these thoughts on his rapidly improving defense, following his club’s 23-point thrashing of Green Bay in the NFC Championship: “The more that you play together, and you gain experience together, the faster you can play.”
“We’re playing faster now than we did earlier in the season,” he continued. “Our speed hasn’t changed in terms of lowering our 40 times, but because of our communication, because of our style and attitude that we’re able to play with, we’re able to play faster.”
Click here to watch my latest on the NFL Network discussing the Falcons.