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Falcons' second-year players help defense take next step, soar into playoffs

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel marveled over the transformation Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, and De'Vondre Campbell all have undergone in just one year.

The 2016 first-, second-, and fourth-round picks were a big reason why the defense experienced a resurgence this season, finishing in the top 10 in scoring defense (19.7 points per game) and total defense (318.4 yards per game) for the first time since the 1998 Super Bowl team.

"We've talked about this, maybe about four weeks ago: We had a collective conversation about experience," Manuel said. "And we said, 'What is experience, and why do we have it?' I let the guys talk, and one of the things that came up was, we walked through a lot of different valleys and have to learn something from them.

"These guys, they all do it at different levels. I'm not taking anything away from them. They bring different things. Each individual has honed in on just his skills set. ... That has elevated the entire unit."

Jones, the team's leading tackler with 138 combined stops, has such a better command of the defense now from the middle linebacker spot and uses his blazing speed and athleticism to be a playmaker, like the game-winning interception at home against New Orleans. His rookie year wasn't too shabby, either, but the Pro Bowl alternate has taken it to another level.

Neal, known for his hard-hitting style, has made sure to get the most out of those jarring hits with three forced fumbles, giving him eight forced fumbles over his first two seasons to set an NFL record for a defensive back.

Campbell, with his size (6-3, 234), speed, and length, has developed a knack for shutting down opposing tight ends in coverage while evolving as a complementary pass-rusher.

The combination of their skills will be a key element as the Falcons prepare for Saturday's wild-card game against the Los Angeles Rams, who led the league in scoring at 29.9 points per game. The Rams can beat you on the ground with MVP candidate Todd Gurley. Quarterback Jared Goff threw 28 touchdown passes with just seven interceptions. And Goff's variety of receivers allows the Rams to beat you with screen plays, intermediate routes, and deep balls.

Jones, Neal, and Campbell will have to be sure tacklers and sound in coverage. Creating turnovers would help, too, with coach Dan Quinn putting constant emphasis on winning the turnover ratio.

Here's a closer look at the three second-year defenders from their own perspectives:

NEAL, STRONG SAFETY, 2016 FIRST-ROUND PICK (17TH OVERALL)

Biggest leap from Year 1 to Year 2 on the field: My coverage. I've been focusing on that, for sure. Just the coverage aspect of the game, continuing to grow in that. And just the overall understanding of the game in general, just becoming more of a student of the game.

Biggest change off the field: My recovery. Just finding my routine. Just finding something that works for me and sticking to it. Massages, things like that.

Lesson learned from Super Bowl loss to Patriots: Honestly, I don't even think about that anymore. I don't focus on that. It's in the past. Out of sight, out of mind.

JONES, MIDDLE LINEBACKER, 2016 SECOND-ROUND PICK (52ND OVERALL)

Biggest leap from Year 1 to Year 2 on the field: My knowledge of the defense. Last year, I was learning a lot of stuff on the run. Being thrown in those situations helped me out a lot this year. I know what to expect. I know why [coaches] got on me last year, and how to prevent that from happening this year.

Biggest change off the field: The way I take care of my body. I really didn't take care of my body like I should have last year. Not because I just didn't, but because I didn't know. Eat better. Just a lot of stuff.

Lesson learned from Super Bowl loss to Patriots: Really, that striving and failing is just a part of life. You don't lay down afterward. You get up, you go harder, and try to get back to it.

CAMPBELL, LINEBACKER, 2016 FOURTH-ROUND PICK (115TH OVERALL)

Biggest leap from Year 1 to Year 2 on the field: Just really being consistent in everything I do, from my preparation to my practice habits.

Biggest change off the field: Just learning how to take care of my body. I think the biggest thing last year, everything was new to me. I didn't really understand how important recovery was. So I think this year, my off-the-field habits have changed drastically. I spend a lot more time recovering than I did last year. Last year, I'd just leave here and go home. Now, I get massages a couple times a week, cold tub, do everything I can to keep my body fresh.

Lesson learned from Super Bowl loss to the Patriots: Never take anything for granted. That opportunity may never come again. So every time I step on the field, I try to play like it's my last time ever playing.