FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – “Fast and physical” is more than just a catch phrase for Dan Quinn. Every coach in the NFL covets team speed on defense. But for the Falcons’ front man, his ability to produce results on the field shortly after introducing his mantra plays a large part in where Atlanta sits right now, one step away from a potential Super Bowl win.
Rookie linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell brought blazing speed with them to Atlanta; a trait that helped them solidify starting roles at the beginning of the 2016 season. Campbell ranked third among linebackers at the 2016 NFL Combine and Jones fourth in the 40-yard dash. Rookie safety Keanu Neal was the ninth-fastest safety.
“I’d say the stamp on the team, the thing that I would notice the most is just the speed; the team speed that the Falcons have,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said on a conference call. “They have a lot of fast guys. Defensively they close up space very quickly. Their linebackers run well. Their defensive line, although they have a couple of big, strong, physical guys in there, overall they have usually nine or 10 players on the field that I would say are fast. They’re either as fast or faster than probably what the average speed of their position is in the league. I’d say that’s a big stamp that he has put on the team.”
But it wasn’t until that speed was connected with something else that the Atlanta defense truly altered course; experience.
Dwight Freeney laughed when asked if he was worried about heading into a Super Bowl with four rookie starters on defense (undrafted rookie Brian Poole at nickel corner is the fourth). He raved about the young players’ energy levels and praised the fact that they’ve seen enough during their first season that they’re no longer playing like rookies.
Quinn mentioned that experience and maturation process on Wednesday.
“For all the guys that came in, there was never a time that, OK, this is the starter,” said Quinn. “They had to earn their way and see all the unique things that they could do. For both our inside linebackers, having resiliency to battle back from injuries, we saw that from Dre’ [De’Vondre Campbell]. The second thing was getting more reps, more communication. So that’s been a big part of his improvement and his ability to play faster because now you have more time, more reps, more experience together. And sometimes you have to force that. And we did that with him. And he’s answered that bell each and every time.”
Belichick marveled about the Falcons’ speed. And when it comes to physical play, Neal’s been turning ear holes on helmets sideways all season. Ask Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson and Green Bay passer Aaron Rodgers how hard Poole hits, they’ll nod their heads in agreement of the physical label.
Quinn laid out his “fast and physical” plan shortly after arriving in Atlanta in 2015. But it has been the growth of both draft classes and the development of these four rookies on the defense this season that’s allowed the rest of the league – and New England in particular in Super Bowl LI – to take notice.