Why the Falcons expect to be a top-5 defense in 2018

The Falcons in 2018 will return nine of 11 players who started on defense during Atlanta's playoff run last season. Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It's not a goal scribbled across a locker room chalkboard or written on a note inside each defender's locker, but the Atlanta Falcons feel confident about achieving a particular mark in 2018: evolving into a top-5 defense.

Last season, under first-year defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, the Falcons finished in the top 10 in both scoring defense (eighth at 19.7 points per game) and total defense (ninth at 318.4 yards per game) for the first time since 1998. Linebacker Deion Jones and strong safety Keanu Neal both played in the Pro Bowl, and nose tackle Grady Jarrett showed the NFL world why he should be an intimidating force for years to come.

The Falcons return nine of 11 players who started on defense in a 15-10 divisional playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. It's still a relatively young unit as defensive end Brooks Reed, at 31, is the only player over 30. But most of the projected starters have at least two years completed in the system.

"We're well capable of being a top-5 defense," said linebacker De'Vondre Campbell. "I think last year was just a glimpse of how good we can really be. I think we kind of started to put it all together toward the end of the season, and we've got something to build on now. We're all getting very comfortable with each other, day in and day out. This time of the year, this is when we really become close and get communication and all that stuff down pat. So, I think we definitely can be a top-5 defense. That's on us to make it happen."

Falcons coach Dan Quinn certainly knows the makeup of a top-5 defense. He was the defensive coordinator in Seattle during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, as the Seahawks finished No. 1 overall in total defense and scoring defense in back-to-back years. He brought the same fast-and-physical mentality to the Falcons while installing a simple scheme that allows his players to play freely.

However, the Falcons evolving into a top-5 defensive unit is not a topic Quinn is ready to approach.

"Those are cool things that people can talk about postseason," Quinn said. "But during [the season], the main thing for me is it still comes down to points allowed -- and points scored, offensively -- and then that turnover margin. When those things are in order, you'll be a pretty [respected] defense.

"I hope when people watch us play, they see the speed, they see the toughness, they see that ball-hawking mindset to go after it. I feel like we're definitely making progress to be the unit that we'd like to be. Put it this way: The goal is to be the best team."

The Falcons, who finished 27th in scoring defense and 25th in total defense during the 2016 Super Bowl run, made their significant improvement last season despite not getting stellar performances from '16 sack champion Vic Beasley Jr. and one-time Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant. Beasley struggled through a hamstring injury and had to, at times, drop into coverage at strongside linebacker, and Trufant didn't look his confident self coming off a season-ending torn pectoral. Both are expected to rebound this season, specifically Beasley with his focus now solely on playing defensive end.

The loss of '17 sack leader Adrian Clayborn to the New England Patriots shouldn't be too painful as long as Takk McKinley takes the next step in his second season. McKinley continues to be limited coming off shoulder surgery, but the flashes he displayed in limited snaps as a rookie proved he could terrorize quarterbacks while rushing opposite of Beasley.

Free-agent signee Terrell McClain and rookie third-round pick Deadrin Senat bring experience and depth, respectively, to the defensive line. Jack Crawford's return from a season-ending biceps injury and the re-signing of once-released Derrick Shelby also will add more bodies up front. The Falcons lost run-stuffing, space-eating defensive tackle Dontari Poe to Carolina in free agency.

The team's addition of second-round pick Isaiah Oliver at cornerback, with his length and athleticism, should bolster the secondary -- particularly when it comes to defending taller receivers such as Tampa Bay's Mike Evans. Oliver's potential emergence could kick either Trufant or Robert Alford inside to nickelback, where Brian Poole held the title last season. And the Falcons count on free safety Ricardo Allen as the last line of defense in the single-high look to prevent explosive plays.

Tackling and creating turnovers continues to be Quinn's primary emphasis with the group. Last season, the Falcons were minus-2 in the turnover ratio with 16 takeaways and 18 giveaways. Of the teams that finished in the top 5 in either total defense or scoring defense last season, only one -- the Denver Broncos [at minus-17] -- lost the turnover ratio.

"Usually when you're really kicking [butt], if you can get to plus 8, 9, 10 for the year, you've played some good ball," Quinn said. "That's usually a good goal, to be in the plus. If you can get double-digit plus, you did a hell of a job.

"I generally don't make big stat predictions. ... I don't get too caught up in that as much as I say, 'Did we cause turnovers? Did we take care of the ball? Were we explosive?' Those are the things that I measure and probably talk about with the guys the most."

The Falcons have quite a defensive challenge from the outset with the Eagles on the NFL's opening night (Sept. 6). Philadelphia averaged 28.6 points per game last season, the same amount as New England and right behind the league-leading Los Angeles Rams (29.9 points per game). Four of the teams on the Falcons' 2018 schedule averaged better than 25 points per game last season: Philadelphia, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and NFC South rival New Orleans.

"We want to be the best defense we can be," Jarrett said. "This program is full of competitors. Why not [top 5]? Guys want to be the best. But at the end of the day, it's about us handling our business, being sharp, and not shooting ourselves in the foot. The rest will take care of itself."