There was no sign of the figurative “wall” for Falcons rookies on Sunday at the Georgia Dome. Two of them, linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal, led the defensive effort in the Falcons’ 41-13 victory over the 49ers.
Jones forced a fumble in the first quarter and Neal recovered it, leading to the second Falcons touchdown. Neal led the team with 10 tackles and added two passes defended and Jones made eight tackles.
The Falcons selected Neal in the first round of the last draft, took Jones in the second round and picked linebacker De’Vondre Campbell in the fourth. Campbell and Jones were starters from Week 1 and Neal joined the lineup once he recovered from knee surgery that sidelined him for the first two games.
The Falcons hoped to improve their team speed and physical play and the rookies have shown signs of coming on after some growing pains. Jones especially is peaking: He’s earned his highest grades from Pro Football Focus over the past five weeks and had another standout effort against the 49ers.
“It’s a matter of learning my keys better and locking in and taking all the keys to the field,” he said. “It allows me to play faster and know what is going on.”
Jones ended San Francisco’s second drive when he jarred the ball loose from running back Carlos Hyde at the 49ers’ 49-yard line. The ball bounced into the open field and Neal recovered it at the 50.
“Really just trying to make a profile tackle that we always talk about in the strike zone because that’s where the ball is at,” Jones said. “I put my head on it and it ended up coming out.”
That play helped set the tone for a dominant defensive effort by the Falcons.
In addition to getting the turnover, the Falcons forced the 49ers to go three-and-out on four of their 10 possessions series (not including a meaningless series to end of the game).
“Getting that ball back into the offense’s hands, you know they are going to score,” Falcons safety Ricardo Allen said. “That’s out challenge to ourselves. How many times can we get the ball back into our offense’s hands? We went out there and kept getting three-and-outs.
“Even when they got a first down, we made sure we stopped them. They got a touchdown or two but we kept playing the whole game and we got the ball back to our offense and you see what they did.”