Young defense playing key role for division-leading Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) The Atlanta Falcons' defense has made plenty of rookie mistakes. No surprise there, given all the first-year players they've put on the field.

The Falcons have started as many as four rookies at times this season, and the youth movement doesn't end there. Four other regulars have been playing in the NFL only two seasons, signaling an entirely new direction for the often-maligned unit.

Coach Dan Quinn wasn't at all hesitant about sending out so many young players.

''We knew there would be some growing pains with certain techniques and certain things that you have to go through,'' Quinn said Thursday. ''But I didn't have concerns with it. Otherwise, I wouldn't have put them in. I felt like they had earned it and were ready to go.''

Atlanta ranks 28th in both points (26.5 per game) and yards (376.3) allowed, but that's nothing new. The Falcons have traditionally struggled on defense, rarely placing among the NFL's elite units.

Now, at least, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

Quinn said the improvement has been evident in recent weeks as the Falcons (8-5) make a push for their first playoff berth since 2012. They host the woeful San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, coming off perhaps their best defensive performance of the season.

In a 42-14 rout of the Los Angeles Rams, the Falcons defense chalked up a pair of touchdowns - one off an interception, another off a fumble recovery - and came up with another big interception to halt a drive deep in Atlanta territory.

''It really starts with communication - how good can you get at that?'' Quinn said. ''Not only do you know your own assignments, but you're able to share some of the information pre-snap. Over the last two weeks, I've really seen them ramp up that communication, where the information is getting back and forth.''

Up front, Vic Beasley - a first-round pick in 2015 - has emerged as a dominant pass rusher with 13.5 sacks, tied for the league lead with Denver's Von Miller. Another second-year player, Grady Jarrett, is a key contributor on the interior line.

The linebacking corps includes a pair of rookie starters, second-round pick Deion Jones and fourth-rounder De'Vondre Campbell. They have drastically improved the speed and athleticism of that group, which was especially evident when Jones returned an interception for a 33-yard touchdown against the Rams.

Four youngsters are playing key roles in the secondary, including rookie strong safety Keanu Neal and free safety Ricardo Allen, who's in his second season on the 53-man roster after spending a year on the practice squad. Jalen Collins, another second-year player, moved into a starting role at cornerback after a season-ending injury to Desmond Trufant. Undrafted rookie Brian Poole has made six starts as the nickel back.

''We have a really significant role on this team,'' Neal said. ''But I feel like we've handled it well.''

When Quinn arrived, it was clear the Falcons needed a major upgrade after ranking last in yards allowed in 2014. They've addressed that glaring weakness mainly through the draft, devoting six of nine picks in the first five rounds to defensive players.

All of them are either full-time starters or a big part of the playing rotation. Their impact is evident in the statistics, where they account for 56 percent of the tackles, 59 percent of the sacks, 67 percent of the interceptions and 73 percent of the forced fumbles.

Jones said he feels like a ''completely different'' player than the guy who started in Week 1.

''I've still got room to grow,'' he said. ''But I can say I'm starting to know the game more and more. It's been a fun experience to see myself grow as a player.''

That certainly bodes well for the future.

The present doesn't look so bad, either.

''We don't look at them as young guys anymore,'' Quinn said. ''We just look at them as ballplayers who are ready to play.''

Notes: WR Julio Jones (sprained toe) missed another practice and it's still not known if he'll be able to play Sunday after sitting out last week's game. ... WR Mohamed Sanu (groin) was listed as limited for the second day in a row. ... Also missing practice: CB Jalen Collins (knee); S Kemal Ishmael (knee); S Robenson Therezie (ankle); WR Nick Williams (concussion); and DE Adrian Clayborn (knee).

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

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