Falcons' young defense 'can be great,' and confidence is growing

ATLANTA -- The Falcons have talked for a few weeks now about their defense making significant strides, but it probably means a little more when such praise comes from an opponent.

That's exactly what happened after Saturday's 36-20 divisional playoff victory over Seattle. Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin couldn't help but give the young Falcons defense its due credit.

"I think they can be great," Baldwin told ESPN.com. "They are young, but they have a lot of talent. They have a lot of athletic, gifted talent. No one particular person stood out. It was just their effort. They played really, really hard. And you've got to respect that about any team."

Baldwin wasn't surprised, considering Atlanta's defense is under the watch of a man he highly respects, Falcons head coach and former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who has instilled an attacking mentality into a group that typically includes a starting lineup of four rookies and three second-year players.

"If there's a football and there's a field, we're going to go out there and play ball," free safety Ricardo Allen said. "We're like junkyards dogs in here, man. We don't care."

Allen has evolved into one of the leaders of the defense. Taking up a leadership role means setting an example with your play, and Allen followed through with a timely interception of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson midway through the fourth quarter. It was one of two interceptions by the Falcons, with rookie Deion Jones getting the other off a deflection. And the Falcons didn't turn the ball over on offense.

"If you win the turnover battle in the playoffs, you're usually going to win the game," Allen said. "And we knew that. And we said we needed to come out with one or two of them, and we did."

The defense didn't come out as confidently as Allen sounded. In fact, it looked like the defenders were destined for a downfall after allowing Wilson to drive the Seahawks 89 yards in 14 plays, the opening march capped by his 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham. But something changed after the Falcons surrendered that long drive.

"After that first drive, we came to the sideline and we talked," Allen said. "We said, 'That's not the way we do it.' We gave them that whole drive because we weren't on our fundamentals. We came back to the sideline and said, 'Let's get back to what we do.'"

Allen didn't point the finger at anybody but himself.

"I didn't communicate as well as I could have," he said. "I saw formations that I knew what they were doing, and it was so loud that it was tough for me to get my communications to the other people. There was one time when they threw the quick screen to the outside. I didn't do a good job of getting Keanu [Neal] lined up out there. I should have said, 'Go, go, go.' I'm the one who is deep and sees the formations. When you're down in the box, you don't always get to see those formations."

Allen and his defensive mates got things corrected. It started with defensive lineman/offensive lineman Ben Garland recording a safety while plopping down on a tripped up Wilson. There were three sacks in the game, by Brooks Reed, Jonathan Babineaux and Garland. Plus there were some punishing hits delivered, the most vicious probably being nickelback Brian Poole's open-field collision with Wilson.

The Falcons limited running back Thomas Rawls to 34 yards on 11 carries, coming off his 161-yard performance in Seattle's wild-card win over Detroit.

"Certainly we came back and did much better," Quinn said of his defense rebounding after surrendering the touchdown on the first drive. "After that, I thought we settled back in and made more plays and tackled better."

Cornerback Robert Alford said coming into the game the defense was "underrated" based on regular-season missteps. Well, either Dallas or Green Bay certainly won't take anything for granted in next Sunday's NFC Championship Game after seeing how the Falcons flew around the field.

"You've got to play with confidence in this game," Alford said. "Right now, it's win or go home. If you don't have confidence, you already lost. Confidence is something that we're going to play with each and every week.

"This is football. You're going to give up some plays. The opponent gets paid, too. It's not like we're out there playing against slouches or high school receivers. They are going to catch balls. It's just how you bounce back from it and what you can do the next play for your team."

Now it's on to what can the Falcons do next week to propel themselves into the Super Bowl.