Improving Falcons’ defense working to stay in title contention

If there’s any positive that the Atlanta Falcons can take away from their loss in LI, it’s that they have plenty of reasons to believe they can return to the NFL’s biggest game. The Falcons may have blown a 25-point lead against New England in February, but they also showed the world how deeply talented they were. Most importantly, the defense that helped them win the NFC Championship Game was just starting to come into its own. This fall should be the time when that unit advances to another level.

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The same defense that defined itself with youth and athleticism now has more veteran experience and depth. There’s a new coordinator — former defensive backs coach received that promotion — but the principles won’t change at all. The Falcons rebuilt their defense with an emphasis on speed and quickness. The only difference these  days is that the players have a better idea of how to capitalize on those assets.

That Super Bowl loss taught the Falcons a thing or two about what happens when you don’t finish. Their fast start in that game also educated them on what this defense can be when it is clicking.

“It definitely pushed everybody for this offseason,” middle linebacker said of that defeat. “When you’re striving for something, there’s always going to be a roadblock. You just have to keep your head up and get back to it, regardless of how far or close you are or how much you fell short. You just have to go back to work.”

The Falcons don’t have to do much to pick up where they left off. Even though they ranked 27th in the NFL in points allowed (27.4 per game), they only gave up an average of 19.3 points in their final six games leading up to the Super Bowl. Much of that success had to do with head coach taking over defensive play-calling duties in the second half of the season. It also resulted from several first- and second-year players growing up in a hurry.

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The core of that unit returns intact, with Jones, Pro Bowl defensive end Vic Beasley and safety Keanu Neal as the headliners. Atlanta also returns its best cornerback in and Desmond Trufant (who only played nine games after sustaining a torn pectoral) and bolstered its defensive line through the draft (defensive end Takkarist McKinley was Atlanta’s first-round pick) and free agency (with the signings of defensive tackle Dontari Poe and defensive end ). The goal is for Atlanta to be more disruptive up front and more dynamic on the back end. One thing that already is apparent is that his bunch won’t lack for confidence.

The Falcons have to improve in more areas — they also ranked 25th in the league in yards allowed (371.2) — but the expectations are high.

“I want to see the overall consistency week in and week out,” said Manuel. “The will to compete for a true 60-minute game. The will to sacrifice and reload every week. I’ve done something different in that I’ve let them set our goals. Usually, it’s the coaches saying, ‘We want to accomplish X, Y and Z.’ No. This is their team. We are player-led and that’s one of the biggest things they talked about.”

“We are very pleased that we were able to get this extension done,” Falcons general manager said in a statement. “Devonta embodies everything we are looking for in a Falcon, and we are proud that he’ll be able to spend his Vic Beasley jersey career here in Atlanta.”

A fourth-round draft pick in 2014, Freeman has scored 27 touchdowns over the past two seasons and had vastly outperformed his rookie deal, which was due to pay him $1.8 million in 2017. The new contract will be tacked onto the final year of Freeman’s rookie deal and runs through the 2022 season.

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“Everybody’s happy,” said Freeman’s agent, Kristin Campbell. “I’m so excited for him. He’s excited to be a Falcon for life. He loves the city. The organization’s been great throughout the process. To have him be the highest-paid back after only three years is a testament to his achievement. Everyone’s thrilled.”

Six days before Super Bowl LI, Freeman expressed a desire for a new deal, which became a major story during the days leading up to the game. The dual threat backed up his words with a strong performance in the Falcons’ heartbreaking Super Bowl LI defeat to the New England Patriots, scoring the game’s first touchdown and gaining 121 yards from scrimmage.

Last month, as negotiations with the Falcons stalled, Freeman was prepared to play out his rookie deal and test the market — or have the franchise tag placed upon him by the Falcons — following the 2017 season. He spent $50,000 on a $10-million insurance policy to protect him in the event of a career-altering injury, all of which is now moot.

Freeman, 25, will now command an annual average salary second only to Bell (unless Bell declines to sign his franchise tender and elects to sit out the season). For now, Freeman has the NFL’s most lucrative deal among running backs, surpassing that of the Buffalo Bills’ LeSean McCoy, whose average annual salary is a reported $8 million.

Last January, Freeman admitted that he was “struggling” with his role in Atlanta’s offense, which had him sharing the workload with Tevin Coleman, a third-round pick in the 2015 draft. Though Coleman remains an integral part of the Falcons’ attack — now under the guidance of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who replaced Kyle Shanahan after Shanahan was hired as the San Francisco 49ers head coach following the Super Bowl — it’s clear that the organization regards Freeman as its marquee back.

Two seasons ago, the 5-foot-8, 206-pound Freeman made the Pro Bowl after gaining 1,056 yards on 265 carries and catching 73 passes for 578 yards. Last season, he ran for 1,079 yards on 227 carries and had 54 receptions for 462 yards, again earning a Pro Bowl selection.

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