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The Falcons no longer have a soft defense, but will they have a good one?

Toughness was the key for the Falcons this offseason, and now we find out if it pays off.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Even when the Falcons' defenses during the Mike Smith era were good, they weren't particularly tough. They got by with discipline, finesse, and occasionally outright chaos, as was the case during Mike Nolan's first, actually successful year in Atlanta. The team tried to fix that by adding Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai to the front, but simply put, it didn't work.

The Falcons of 2015 weren't much better, frankly, as evinced by the putrid Buccaneers game where they let Jameis Winston escape from pressure and run for a long first down in one of the most legitimately embarrassing sequences I've seen from this team in 25 years of being a fan. Confronted with this, Dan Quinn and the front office have conducted this offseason as though the fate of their football team depended on adding physicality, which it probably does.

To wit:

  • Free agency brought Derrick Shelby, a physical presence on the defensive line, and Courtney Upshaw, one of the biggest linebackers you'll ever see and someone noted for his nastiness against the run;
  • The draft saw the team bring in Keanu Neal, who is known for his hitting, and Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell, who need refinement but are both willing tacklers themselves;
  • Moved Grady Jackson to the nose full-time and will ask Ra'Shede Hageman to play some end, putting two young, very strong defenders into the game with greater frequency.
None of this is going to magically make the Falcons the '85 Bears, but conscious of the fact that their defense was neither particularly athletic no particularly physical, Atlanta's finally done something about it. I'm not convinced this defense is going to make huge leaps, given that they'll be reliant on rookies and somewhat limited players like Upshaw, but I don't think you can quibble with the notion that they'll be rougher to play against than they might have been last year.

Give Atlanta a healthy, productive year that sees everyone settle into their roles, plus another quality offseason, and the defense might start earning (and deserving) some real accolades. For this year, at least, I'll be happy with progress and physicality.