Numb to 28-3 Super Bowl jokes, Falcons still look to bring pain

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett rocked back in a seat under a VIP tent earlier this month and had some business to discuss. He wanted to make sure a visitor understood one point: Regardless of questions, he isn’t one to duck a stinging defeat.

“No excuses,” Jarrett said. “I’m not gonna lie. I got whooped. But don’t just look at one game.”

On any other day – too many of these summer days, probably – he might have been speaking about The Loss. The one the Falcons are getting bored talking about. The one that has been diced up, recycled and re-recycled. So much so that they’ve grown immune to the Super Bowl hangover stuff.

[Season preview: Choose your own adventure with this year’s Falcons]

Go ahead and ask. But don’t expect anything worth your time or theirs. They’re off the media’s psychiatric couch. And they’re not looking back.

For at least one play, Vic Beasley put the heat on Tom Brady in February’s Super Bowl. (AP)

Well, they’re not looking back at that loss. But Jarrett had one that he wanted to address.

In pingpong.

“I’ve given many whoopings on that table, OK?” Jarrett said, defending a savage defeat at the hands of linebacker Vic Beasely that was making the social media rounds. “Many whoopings. Yeah, I caught my ‘L’. But I can take my ‘L’ like a man.”

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It was an airy discussion in what has been an upbeat Falcons camp. Apparently there’s something to be said about taking an “L” like a man and reminding the world of the whoopings you’re capable of handing out. That might as well be the theme of this Falcons season. They’ve taken their Super Bowl loss in stride, answered every conceivable question about it, and moved on to the planning stages for the beatdowns they’re hoping to deliver moving forward.

So what should convince the rest of the world that Atlanta is capable of improving on an impressive but bittersweet 2016 season? Look no further than Jarrett and his surrounding cast. Specifically, a defense that is young, fast and deeper than last season. And with each passing day, looking more and more like the East Coast adaptation of head coach Dan Quinn’s Seattle Seahawks defenses.

As Jarrett put it, “The excitement here is the depth. The amount of skill and experience we have. We’re going to be keeping guys fresh on the defensive line this season and that is going to do nothing but make the team better.”

This is what progress looks like. When you finally get past the “What happened?” of the 2016 Atlanta Falcons, the “What’s better?” of 2017 comes into view. And the Falcons have a lot going on in that department. So much so that it can be argued that another Super Bowl run on any number of fronts, from the offense that looks as good as any in the NFC, to the young core of leading players who are entering their prime, to even the coach in Quinn and general manager in Thomas Dimitroff who have each shown resilience in the face of colossal defeat.

Maybe more than anything, Atlanta’s defense appears capable of stepping into some elite company this season. Most notably, a defensive line that could nip at the heels of the Seahawks’ vaunted unit, one of the best in the NFL.

“I’ve not been more pleased with an overall defensive roster in the 10 years since I’ve been here,” Dimitroff said. ” … It’s a really tough, strong, determined interior [line]. That’s really going to open up some pass rush lanes for us.”

This isn’t the sexiest storyline of a potential Super Bowl return. Not when quarterback Matt Ryan is the reigning NFL MVP and Julio Jones is one of the most dangerous wideouts in the NFL. And certainly not when training camp was partially consumed in the contract negotiations of running back Devonta Freeman, who is now the highest paid player at his position.

But losing sight of the Atlanta defensive line’s importance is a mistake. When healthy, the Falcons’ four-man front could go an absurd nine players deep between the defensive tackle and defensive end rotations. That abundance happened in large part to the free-agent signings of defensive tackles Dontari Poe and Jack Crawford, the healthy return of defensive end Derrick Shelby and the hopeful debut of first-round pick Takk McKinley.

Dontari Poe brings some beef to the Falcons’ defensive line. (AP)

Poe in particular is exciting, having slimmed down into the mid 330-pound range. If he can stay healthy and remain in that weight range, he gives Atlanta a powerful plug alongside Jarrett, who has a chance to become one of the NFL’s best interior pass-rushing defensive tackles this season.

“Poe is lighter, probably as light as he’s been since college,” Quinn said. “He’s got additional quickness and power. … Jarrett has special quickness, for sure. He’s not long, so he has to use that quickness. But man can he get off the ball.”

That tandem and the surrounding talent give Atlanta what Quinn has been searching for: a deep defensive line that can be rotated constantly and effectively. With opponents likely to be pressed into high-volume passing games against the Atlanta offense, no unit will be more important going forward.

“As a pass rusher, you have to play at max speed,” Quinn said. “Those 40 [pass] plays or whatever, you have to be going all out. It’s, ‘I go, you go, we’re going.’ Whether it’s third down or two minutes. …

“There has to be the dog in you that wants to fight. Grady Jarrett is one that way. Dontari Poe, he’s got that. Courtney Upshaw. Shelby. Adrian Clayborn. We’re getting McKinley. Jack Crawford.”

Quinn slides forward when he ticks down that list, giving a visitor a few forearms to the shoulder while nodding his head. The excitement is palpable. The resiliency seems real. And the growth and depth is evident.

On the field and atop the pingpong tables, the Falcons have taken their losses. But they’re looking ahead toward what comes next. And as Jarrett might put it, many whoopings appear to be in store.

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