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Burning 2019 Falcons questions: Where will the defensive improvements come from?

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Perhaps the photo will be a hint.

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

As we continue to think about the 2019 Atlanta Falcons and what’s coming down the pike, let’s focus in on the defense overall and what’s possible going ahead.

After a very sound 2017 season that saw the team’s young defensive stars like Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and De’Vondre Campbell come into their own in major ways and the defensive line actually sack the quarterback, the unit plummeted in 2018 thanks to injuries and questionable roster decisions.

In 2019, the team made some noticeable changes to help fix the defensive woes.

Dan Quinn assumed defensive play calling duties from Marquand Manuel, Adrian Clayborn was brought back after a year stint in New England, Tyeler Davison was recruited to help with the run and rookie CBs Kendall Sheffield and Jordan Miller and DE John Cominsky to help with the continued youth movement.

Other than that, the team will rely on healthy versions of Jones, Neal and Allen to return to their critical spots in Quinn’s scheme and DQ’s coaching to elevate the play of inconsistent edge rushers Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley.

They’ll also hope re-signed defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman can earn his place back on the team and put on a comeback and young players like new starting cornerback Isaiah Oliver, likely weakside linebacker Foyesade Oluokun and 2018 interception leader Damontae Kazee can build on what they did last season.

This defense is a mystery right now, but the grand improvements will have to come from two big things: growth and health.

Growth

For growth, the team is going to have to grow in its creativity in calling defensive schemes and positioning its players in spots that best suit their strengths. We saw more of that when Quinn was calling the plays in 2016 than we have in the DQ ere of Falcons football. The 2018 defense was often listless and predictable, facets that cannot rule the day if improvement is the aim.

Growth from young players like Oliver, assuming Robert Alford’s snaps, Oluokun and Kazee, the new nickel corner, will also be key. The team needs those guys in particular to come through with added responsibility.

We’ve talked aplenty about Beasley and McKinley’s vital need for growth, so we’ll keep this plain and simple: if those two do not grow into the trust placed into them to be consistent factors off the edge, the Falcons will struggle to generate exterior pressure this season.

Growth can also come for a guy like Desmond Trufant, who needs to grow into being one of the league’s top corners again. He’s always been a good player, but his contract dictates he be great. His growth into being one of the elder statesmen on the defense is paramount.

Health

Getting Jones, Neal and Allen all back together on the field will change at least somewhat of this defense’s outlook. Jones is the field marshal for the front seven, and controls the team’s in-game defensive schematics. His communications get the guys in position and make sure they’re making proper adjustments when things are spotted in the opposing offensive formations.

Not only is he an elite talent who has stellar coverage skills and is an improved run defender, he’s a cerebral captain for this unit. The defense looked somewhat improved toward the end of 2018 just because Jones was getting back to that role.

Neal is the team’s sledgehammer and sets the tone in the run defense and in the defense’s total physicality. It’s been some time since we’ve seen him bullying opponents, and the team missed that torpedo factor greatly last season. Neal also excels in coverage and has been known to watch over the tight end, a thorn in the 2018 team’s side.

Allen runs the communication on the back end and provides a strong dose of leadership and poise for the defense. You could tell the secondary wasn’t as efficient last season because they lacked the guidance they get from Allen. He’s also a very good free safety, though Kazee did an admirable job filling in and had more ball hawking.

Jones will be ready to go, but Neal and Allen are still rehabbing from respective ACL and Achilles injuries. Allen is the wild card who might not be quite ready, but both guys do have sound chances to be back on the field in Week 1. The team needs them.

If the Falcons can grow on defense and return their trio of key players to health, this defense might continue to reach its potential.

If it does not, it will remain stagnant at a time where it cannot afford to, waste another year of its best players’ respective primes and force some difficult decisions after the season.