Before the 2016 NFL draft, the Falcons stated explicit goals of improving their speed and physicality on defense. To that end, they drafted safety Keanu Neal and linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell and set the trio on a path to start from Game 1.
“We are certainly getting closer to that,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “The speed, the physicality, we are certainly looking for that at all times. I’ve been especially impressed by the guys who play down by the line of scrimmage — that’s Neal, that’s Jones — the physicality and the speed that they play with.”
Jones (108) and Neal (106) led all NFL rookie defenders in tackles during the regular season, with Carolina cornerback Daryl Worley (88) a distant third. Neal ranks near the top in spite of missing two games following knee surgery and playing only 83 percent of the defensive snaps.
The rookies also have checked another box in Quinn’s defensive formula.
“They have a real knack for the football,” Quinn said.
Neal’s five forced fumbles led all NFL rookies during the regular season. Jones, a second-round draft pick, tied for second among rookies with three interceptions and led them with two returned for touchdowns — one of them, for 90 yards, essentially sealed a victory in his hometown of New Orleans.
The Falcons drafted Campbell in the fourth round in part because of his coverage skills, and he’s done solid work that includes an interception and eight passes defended. Nickel cornerback Brian Poole, a college free agent, ended up playing a larger role than expected and has been very good in coverage while recording an interception, 14 passes defended and two fumble recoveries.
“Really, really pleased with the progress they’ve made,” Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith said. “First of all, we evaluated them all, and they can all run. I go back to the (offseason practices) and think about all the time the coaches spent with these guys getting them ready to play at an early age, and they’ve come right in and started and done an outstanding job. What’s really exciting is not only what we are doing now, (but) what we can do in the future.”
Neal’s production hasn’t been a matter of making tackles downfield. The Falcons deploy him near the line of scrimmage so he can help in run support with his closing speed and hard-hitting style.
Neal, the No. 17 overall draft pick, had a stretch of inconsistent play during the middle of the season. But Quinn recently said Neal’s “identity as a ballplayer is really coming alive” as he learns to play faster.
“The biggest thing is just being able to slow the game down and understand what offenses are trying to do to me,” Neal said
Neal said opponents sometimes try to isolate him one-on-one with wide receivers, which means potentially difficult matchups for him. Neal also has had primary coverage on several top-notch tight ends this season.
“I hold my own for the most part,” Neal said.
Jones also has been dependable in coverage, which at his position often means closing fast to make sound tackles in zone coverage. His run defense has been up-and-down in large part because of inconsistent tackling.
Quinn said when Jones misses, the issue usually is leverage, which involves forcing the ballcarrier toward the middle of the field to pursuing teammates.
“We went back and looked, and we think they are correctable because we didn’t have our leverage exactly right,” Quinn said. “And then the times that he does, we totally nail it.”
Neal and Campbell said the defensive rookies have benefited from the shared experience of learning to become professionals. Spending so much time together since the rookie minicamps helped them to develop chemistry and “forced us to become tight-knit,” Campbell said.
Said Neal: “If you build a relationship outside of football, it helps in the long run. Because then you are not playing for just wins and losses, you are playing for your brothers.”