Atlanta Falcons Robert Alford speaks to the media during Super Bowl LI Opening Night, at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas on January 30, 2017. The Atlanta Falcons will play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI on Sunday in Houston. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo
HOUSTON -- Atlanta Falcons rookie linebacker Deion Jones shot a curious glance at the interviewer asking if the youthful Atlanta defense might open Super Bowl LI in awe of four-time NFL champion and venerable Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Bluntly, the suggestion ran contrary to the very nature of competition. The Falcons, with four rookies among their defensive starters, can ill afford to take the field at NRG Stadium on Sunday deferring to Brady and the skins on his wall. Instead, the Falcons are emboldened by the significant strides made given the rampant and relative inexperience they feature on the defensive side of the ball.
"It's fun to see us all come together, all the work that we've put in paying off and us playing well," said Jones, a second-round pick (52nd overall) from LSU.
"Coaches and leadership on this team (are responsible). Guys taking time out with us and grooming us to be the players that we are now on this level. We really live the brotherhood in that locker room and that's exactly what it's been since the day we got to the facility."
Jones will make his 14th start of the season on Sunday. Fellow linebacker De'Vondre Campbell (fourth round, 115th overall out of Minnesota) has made 10 starts this season. The Atlanta secondary features rookies Keanu Neal (17th overall) out of Florida and undrafted free agent Brian Poole, another Florida product. Neal and Poole have started 14 and nine games, respectively.
The Falcons traversed an unsteady road while their rookies settled in, allowing 28.3 points and 385.9 yards per game while going 6-4 prior to their bye week. Over the subsequent eight games, including postseason victories over the Seahawks and Packers, the Falcons allowed 20.5 points and 344.5 yards while forcing 15 turnovers, four more than they did in the 10 games preceding the bye.
"I've been very pleased with their development over this time; their (position) coaches, the early meetings, the extra stuff they've done to get ready," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "Way back when we knew there'd be some growing pains just to learn the system, how fast you could get up to speed. To see our young guys come of age, so to speak, within the system has been a great start for us."
A camaraderie borne of a shared and similar perspective has been key. And leaning on grizzled vets like Dwight Freeney, Jonathan Babineaux and Tyson Jackson helped ease the transition for rookies taking the daunting steps from wide-eyed novices to reliable contributors.
"You're going to have growing pains, especially as rookies," Neal said. "Continuing to learn from those and continuing to grow, that's the biggest thing that we did."