Dan Quinn thinks Falcons’ defense is finally turning a corner

Most of the Falcons’ star power and approximately 60 percent of the team’s payroll plays on the offense. It follows that the offense gets the most attention and scrutiny and leads to questions like: Can they score more than 500 points again, will Julio Jones stay healthy, and -- the overwhelming favorite in the social-media underworld for 2017 -- how can Steve Sarkisian possibly screw this up?

But while the Falcons are defined by their offense, the rest of their season actually may be defined by their defense.

“I think that’s an accurate statement,” coach Dan Quinn told me the other day. “I like the chemistry that’s starting to happen on the ’17 team. It’s taken longer than I wanted it to, but I think we’re starting to get there.”

They're 5-4. They're not there yet. This season has been a mixed bag. But the Falcons are coming off their best overall performance of the season, a 27-7 win over Dallas, and continue this key difficult stretch in Seattle Monday night.

Offense should never be considered a given, even with the Falcons’ talent. There were coaches from 31 other teams in the offseason studying what the Falcons  accomplished in 2016. They were bound to come up with new ideas about what (or who) to take away from quarterback Matt Ryan’s options.

Quinn summarized it nicely: “We knew it wasn’t going to be rinse and repeat.”

It also was logical to assume the Falcons would not make it through another season without some injuries on offense, as they did for the most part last season. Sure enough, in addition to Julio Jones’ usual ailments, they lost Mohamed Sanu for one game, and now running back Devonta Freeman is in concussion protocol with his second head injury in four months (he also had a concussion in the preseason).

The Falcons scored 27 points against Dallas. It was the most points they scored since Week 3 and only the second time all season they had three offensive touchdowns. Even if the offense is beginning to find its rhythm, this team can’t afford to rely on that the rest of the season.

Even in this era of pass-happy spread offenses, defense wins championships.

The Falcons reached the Super Bowl because of their offense last season. But they lost that game because of their defense. That’s not dismissing the poor decision-making by Kyle Shanahan, Quinn and Ryan down the stretch of the game, decisions that would’ve changed the game’s outcome. But consider again the result of New England’s final five possessions in the championship game:

-- 75 yards, touchdown.

-- 72 yards, field goal.

-- 25 yards, touchdown (following a sack and Ryan fumble).

-- 91 yards, touchdown.

-- 75 yards, touchdown.

Five drives, 31 points. That’s how you lose games.

This season had to be about defensive improvement. The Falcons’ young defense had been ascending last season until that ending and, most, including Quinn, expected it to improve this season. But in the first six games the team took significant steps back in takeaways (as well as turnovers that turn into points), run defense and tackling. It’s only in the past three games that things have started to improve.

The Falcons held the New York Jets to 43 rushing yards and 279 overall in a 25-20 win, and last week limited Dallas to 233 yards in total offense, as well as sacking quarterback Dak Prescott eight times (six by Adrian Clayborn). Carolina rushed for 201 yards, but that's a bit misleading because Cam Newton created many of the yards with his speed on broken plays (including a 34-yarder on third-and-9).

The defense has five takeaways (all fumbles) in the past three games. The Falcons had only three takeaways (one fumble) in the first six games.

“Last year we kind of came along late in the process,” linebacker Vic Beasley said. “This year we were hoping to get off to a hot start, but the team was kind of up and down. But since the Jets game, we feel like things are meshing together. We’re doing a better job limiting the number of errors were making.”

Seven defensive regulars -- Beasley, Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, Brian Poole, Grady Jarrett, Devondre Campbell and Ricardo Allen -- were all in their first or second seasons last season. Sometimes, it’s easy for young players to forget what it takes to get back there.

Former Falcons coach Dan Reeves, who went to nine Super Bowls as a player or coach, said recently, "When you make it, sometimes it's hard to convince players to give that same effort again. They just assume they're going back to the Super Bowl, but it doesn't happen that way."

Quinn didn’t say if that was the case with his team, but he acknowledged a lapse in fundamentals.

“That really bothered me early,” he said.

“The tackling, the takeaways, the discipline to play and the run defense was not up to the standards. It wasn’t an issue of getting bullied around. It was an issue of not being in your gaps. When you jump out and they go for 15 yards, that’s on you. We had too much of that.”

Does he agree defense still wins championships?

“I think teams do,” he said. “But it’s hard to do it without a hard-nosed defense.”

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