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The Falcons’ defense faces heightened expectations for the first time since 2012

It usually takes two to three years before a rebuilding project starts producing results. Dan Quinn's rapidly improving defense is headed into its third.

Kansas City Chiefs v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The process seemed never ending for the Falcons. Despite their success from 2008 to 2012, they heavily leaned on the offense to win games. When the offense stumbled, the “bend but don’t break” defense became a genuine problem. It eventually broke down, which started a complete defensive rebuilding project in 2015, when Dan Quinn was hired.

For all of Thomas Dimitroff’s previous shortcomings, nobody can deny his aggressiveness when it came to building a respectable defense. From making major investments in free agency to first round draft picks, the polarizing general manager wasn’t naïve to the apparent flaws. It played a significant factor in their playoff failures. He knew the defense needed to upgrade in crucial areas, including within the coaching staff.

How high expectations were created in 2012

Mike Nolan replaced Brian Van Gorder as defensive coordinator in 2012. Before things went awry in 2014, there was genuine optimism about Nolan’s philosophy. He brought in a more calm, creative coaching style. It was a refreshing change, as players such as Thomas DeCoud and William Moore grew tired of Van Gorder’s repetitive tirades. as funny as they were for the rest of us.

With Nolan’s experience and some talented pieces, the defense looked destined to become an above-average group. This was a team with Asante Samuel and Brent Grimes at cornerback, and after being hampered by a knee injury, a fully healthy Edwards was ready to provide a pass rushing boost opposite John Abraham. Sean Weatherspoon and Corey Peters were developing into dependable starters. A once bland, extremely flawed defense looked talented on paper.

Although Mike Smith’s team finally won a playoff game, the defense didn’t reach those lofty expectations. Grimes tore his Achilles against Kansas City in the first game of the season. Robert McClain ended up being a pleasant surprise, but no defense could ever fully recover from losing their top corner. It didn’t help that Dunta Robinson never played like the rising star he was in Houston. Edwards proved to be a colossal bust, as he was released in November for poor attitude and performance. Weatherspoon and Peters missed time with injuries. It was another year of not being able to get off the field on third down and relying on forcing turnovers to stay afloat.

Five years later, the defense has been completely revamped. No defensive player remains from that team following the departures of Weatherspoon and Jonathan Babineaux. It’s a much different unit that embodies youth and speed. Dontari Poe is the lone major free agent signing. Every other player has either been drafted or signed as a complimentary piece. There are still some noticeable similarities between both groups, as they are the most talented defenses on paper, since Dimitroff became general manager in 2008.

Exciting secondary takes charge

Before becoming one of the worst pass rushing teams in the league, the Falcons defense was notorious for having a below average secondary. They never had two capable starting cornerbacks on their roster, and that forced them to overpay for Robinson. With Grimes emerging into a stout corner, it somewhat alleviated the persistent issues with Robinson. Opposing quarterbacks decided to pick on their collection of overmatched nickel corners.

Most teams would gladly trade a mere seventh round pick for a former All-Pro cornerback. There aren't many ballhawks quite like Samuel. The possibility of having Grimes, Samuel, and Robinson was the best answer for a continuous problem. They were going to be the driving force behind a much-improved defense. Unfortunately, a potential fearsome trio only played three quarters together. What might have been.

The same notion applies to the current crop of cornerbacks. If the defense is going to grow into a respectable group, it starts with the secondary. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have been covering top wide receivers for three seasons now. Despite neither player being known as injury prone, they’ve only started one full season together. Alford broke his wrist in 2014, while Trufant tore his pectoral last year. Both cornerbacks are not only the best players in the secondary, but they are also the most experienced. It’s time for them to establish themselves as one of the top starting cornerback tandems in the league.

Unlike the 2012 defense, this group has four starting-caliber cornerbacks on the roster. Brian Poole and Jalen Collins rose to the occasion last season. While both players are far from a finished product, they showed their capabilities in high-pressured situations. Poole’s impressive instincts and surefire tackling makes him a valuable contributor. Although his role is currently unclear, Collins showed major improvement in his footwork and fluidity over the last six games of the season.

The safeties will share some responsibility as well. While DeCoud's limitations were evident at free safety, Moore always carried a special aura about him. The hard-hitting strong safety was headed into a contract year in 2012. It’s impossible to compare his past situation with Keanu Neal. What can be compared is their impact as an overall player.

Both players are clear enforcers that embrace every ounce of physicality and enjoy laying waste to their opponents. Moore had a knack for forcing turnovers, which led to him receiving a well-deserved payday. Neal is already showing signs of being a playmaker, as the 2016 first round pick forced five fumbles last season. There isn’t anything preventing him from becoming a cornerstone like Moore once was for the Falcons’ defense.

Intriguing, unbalanced defensive line

The other major comparison stems from the defensive line. Mike Smith didn’t use a heavy rotational based system like Quinn. His group was mostly filled with veterans that rarely left the field. It can be argued that he was too reliant on them, especially during playoff games against Seattle and San Francisco. Quinn’s desire to constantly add defensive lineman every off-season should bode well for the future. There is still plenty of uncertainty surrounding his rebuilt defensive line.

Vic Beasley carried the pass rushing burden at times last season. It was reminiscent of Abraham exploding past hopeless left tackles and fighting off double teams. Both pass rushers aren’t every-down players, which puts added pressure on the supporting cast. The defensive line faces similar questions to the unbalanced group from five years ago. Who is going to be the dependable second edge rusher? Can they generate enough interior pressure? Will they be able to stop the run?

Edwards’ inability to make any positive impact left a gaping hole in the defensive line. He never looked like the player from Minnesota that possessed a quick first step and impressive power. Kroy Biermann stepped up in admirable fashion, considering his limitations as a pass rusher. It was easily the best season of his career, but it was hardly enough given that very few others were contributing. That played a major role behind the defense allowing 123 rushing yards per game.

While the defensive line has plenty of options, none of them are consistent difference makers. Beasley’s tendency to disappear during long stretches can’t be overlooked. How Takkarist McKinley fits into the equation will be crucial. Due to having shoulder surgery in March, he could get off to a slow start, as Edwards did in his first season with the Falcons.

Adrian Clayborn could be moved across the defensive line like Babineaux was in 2012. He is a far more versatile player than Babineaux, who was essentially forced into lining up as a defensive end because of Edwards. Brooks Reed is an ideal fit for the base defense, as Biermann proved to be in Nolan’s system. Both players share the same relentless motor that can surprise opposing offensive tackles. Biermann does probably wish he had a swim move like this.

The current defensive line should be much better than the group from five years ago, as you’d expect. What makes them similar is the specter of an inconsistent pass rush and lack of production from the defensive tackles, which could prevent the Falcons from developing into an above-average defense. Not having Peters healthy and Edwards existent caused them to falter in 2012. They could disappoint if another pass rusher doesn’t emerge, Beasley isn’t more consistent, and Poe fails to improve the run defense.

Why high expectations are more likely to be reached under Quinn

The current defense is more suited to become a top-ten caliber defense. As talented as the 2012 defense looked on paper, they lacked depth in the front seven and speed at linebacker. No defensive player performed better than Deion Jones during the Falcons’ six-game winning streak. De’Vondre Campbell and Duke Riley are potential long-term assets that should benefit from playing with each other. For all the questions on the defensive line, Grady Jarrett is single-handily capable of answering most of them. Not having to take constant double teams should make the budding star defensive tackle even more productive.

The 2012 defense didn’t have many above average players or much upside in the front seven. They also didn’t have a coach like Quinn that can inspire an entire city, let alone an entire locker room. It only took him two seasons to rebuild the NFL’s worst defense. Forget the acceptance of trying to be just good enough. Quinn is establishing the belief that the defense is good enough to impose their will in pursuit of achieving Super Bowl glory, and hopefully delivering on it.