FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Ricardo Allen remembers when the Falcons’ defense ranked among the worst in the NFL.
That’s not difficult. It was only one year ago when the Falcons ranked near the bottom of the league in total defense and dead last in red-zone stops.
Those memories made Allen smile on Wednesday, because defense has become a point of pride for the Falcons, who play at the Los Angeles Rams in a wild-card game on Saturday.
For the first time since Atlanta’s first Super Bowl season in 1998, the Falcons (10-6) finished the regular season ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense (19.7) and total defense.
Allen was especially proud to note the Falcons have climbed to No. 5 in the league in red-zone defense.
Unlike 2016, when the Falcons leaned heavily on the NFL’s top-scoring offense for their Super Bowl run, Atlanta takes better balance into the postseason.
”Going from being one of the bottom defenses in the league last year … it’s big growth,” Allen said, adding the improvement has come ”much faster than I thought it would be.”
The Falcons have emphasized defense in recent drafts, and that commitment has produced results. Defensive starters added in the last three drafts include linebackers Vic Beasley Jr., Deion Jones and DeVondre Campbell and safety Keanu Neal.
Six defensive starters on last year’s defense were first- and second-year players.
Coach Dan Quinn said he has seen second-year players Jones, Campbell and Neal ”take a big step from year one to year two just as you hoped it would happen.”
Jones, Neal and Campbell are Atlanta’s top three leaders in tackles.
Quinn said he sees better communication on the field through ”hand signals, just sometimes an eye contact.”
Allen says there’s room for more improvement.
”Oh man, if we keep growing and we stay humble and we keep enjoying the process, the sky is the limit,” he said. ”I think we can be one of the best defenses in the league for sure.”
Quinn, the former Seattle defensive coordinator, enjoys seeing the young starters play lead roles. He also sees more improvement to come.
”I think this group can take another jump,” Quinn said. ”They’re athletic, they’re tackling well, the communication piece is there, so I’m very hopeful for where that group can go.”
The defensive upswing has been important, because the Atlanta offense that led the league in scoring in 2016 has struggled at times this season . The Falcons’ scoring has dropped from 33.8 to 22.1 points per game.
Atlanta has been held under 30 points in five straight games, including last week’s 22-10 win over Carolina to clinch a playoff spot.
NOTES: Special teams coach Keith Armstrong will interview with the Cardinals next week as a candidate to replace coach Bruce Arians. ”To me it’s a sign of respect,” Armstrong said after Wednesday’s practice. ”I’ve been doing this 24 years now. That’s quite a long time in this league. It’s good to have someone recognize you for what you’ve done.” … Return specialist Andre Roberts (knee, ankle) did not practice. A long list of players were limited, including RB Devonta Freeman (knee), WR Julio Jones (ankle, ribs), DE Adrian Clayborn (calf), WR Taylor Gabriel (hamstring), C Alex Mack (calf) and TE Levine Toilolo (knee).
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