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WATCHING HIS defense one afternoon in training camp, general manager Thomas Dimitroff savored the fruits of three years' worth of scouting. Kroy Biermann, the fifth-round pick from Dimitroff's first draft, in 2008, battled for the starting left end job with Lawrence Sidbury (fourth round, 2009). Last year's No. 1 choice (24th overall), tackle Peria Jerry, dug in on the starting line. This year's first-rounder, outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, worked on his speed rush next to middle 'backer Curtis Lofton, a 2008 second-rounder. The leader of the secondary, free safety Thomas DeCoud (third round, 2008) looked eager to unload on an unsuspecting receiver in a half-speed scrimmage. Those six prime defensive parts are all between the ages of 22 and 26. The franchise quarterback, Matt Ryan, is 25—and has made 31 starts.
"This is no longer a young team learning on the fly," Dimitroff says. "This team really believes it's ready to take that next step. I think we might be too."
What Dimitroff hopes he's building, through the draft and with recent imports at positions of major need such as cornerback (Dunta Robinson), running back (Michael Turner) and tight end (Tony Gonzalez), is a contender that won't suffer through 4--12 falloffs. Under Dimitroff in 2008 and '09, Atlanta had consecutive winning seasons for the first time in the franchise's 44-year history. But for consistent long-term success, his young defense must start to dominate.
The Falcons' D ranked 24th in the league in 2008 and 21st last year, when it had too many holes and got overpowered by strong offenses. In five games against the Cowboys, Giants, Eagles and Saints (twice), Atlanta allowed an average of 33.2 points. To address their shortcomings, the Falcons are banking on new faces at important positions. Emerging tackle Jonathan Babineaux had no one to help him on the inside last year; after missing the last 14 games of the season with a right knee injury, Jerry returns to provide a second knifing presence up the middle. At weakside linebacker Weatherspoon brings his loud presence—"He's the fiery dude we needed here," Dimitroff says—and a solid college résumé: 43½ tackles behind the line of scrimmage in four seasons at Missouri.
But the most important newcomer is Robinson, 28, the former Texan who signed a six-year free-agent deal, with $22.5 million guaranteed, in March. "We needed a player like this," Dimitroff says. No kidding. Only four teams allowed more passing yards than the 3,873 the Falcons surrendered, and Atlanta had nothing resembling a shutdown corner. Undrafted free agent Brent Grimes competed hard on one side, while a mishmash of Chris Houston (dealt to Detroit before the 2010 draft), Chevis Jackson and Christopher Owens got torched on the other. Robinson is no Darrelle Revis, but he's a top 10 cover guy who ensures that the Falcons will no longer be pushovers on obvious passing downs.
"Dunta brings a nastiness that we needed back there," says Lofton. "He's diving around in practice. He really competes. As a group we're starting to get that swagger. We've got a great mix of veterans and young kids starting to play like veterans."
Lofton himself has come a long way in two years. When he arrived in 2008, a 22-year-old kid just off the campus at Oklahoma, he felt self-conscious calling plays in a huddle filled with veterans. "I'm looking up and seeing Keith Brooking and these older guys, thinking, These guys got wives and kids. What am I doing here?" Lofton recalls. "But you gotta just play. It's a lot more natural now."
The pass defense would also be helped by more pressure up front; Atlanta had just 28 sacks last year. Biermann has to emerge. Or Sidbury. Or Weatherspoon. "What we need is to be a faster, more urgent defensive group," says coach Mike Smith, who arrived along with Dimitroff in 2008. "The key isn't really sacks but pressure. The Jets led the league in defense last year and brought consistent pressure, but they were middle of the pack in sacks. What does that mean? They made the ball come out fast, and when you do that you affect the passing game as much as getting a sack."
The Falcons have the prospects. Now those prospects have to blossom into players.