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Young defenders come of age for Super Bowl-bound Falcons

(Reuters) - Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn expected a learning curve when he decided to start four rookies on defense this season, but the move paid off as the improving unit helped them reach the Super Bowl.

"We're just playing things better," Quinn told reporters as the NFC champions prepared to face the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady in the Feb. 5 Super Bowl in Houston.

"It's not that we're doing things differently, but we're doing them better.

"That comes with more reps, that comes with more time, and we've put in that time."

The Falcons' rise to the championship game has been led by quarterback Matt Ryan, who steered a high-flying offense that led the National Football League in scoring by a large margin, but the young defense has grown to make a contribution.

In Atlanta's first 10 games of the regular season, they gave up 28.3 points per game. In their next six, they allowed just 20.5 points per game en route to securing a first-round bye in the playoffs.

20 PHOTOS
Atlanta Falcons 2016 season (11-5 record)
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Atlanta Falcons 2016 season (11-5 record)

Week 1: Buccaneers 31, Falcons 24

(Photo via Getty Images)

Wek 2: Falcons 35, Raiders 28

(Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

Week 3: Falcons 45, Saints 32

(Photo by Tyler Kaufman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Week 4: Panthers 33, Falcons 48

(Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Week 5: Falcons 23, Broncos 16

(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

Week 6: Falcons 24, Seahawks 26

(Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

NFC Divisional Round: Seahawks 20, Falcons 36

(Photo by John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

Week 7: Chargers 33, Falcons 30 

(Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Week 8: Packers 32, Falcons 33

(Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Week 9: Falcons 43, Buccaneers 28

(Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Week 11: Bye

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Week 10: Falcons 15, Eagles 24

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Week 12: Cardinals 19, Falcons 38

(Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Week 13: Chiefs 29, Falcons 28

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Week 14: Falcons 42, Rams 14

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Week 15: 49ers 13, Falcons 41

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Week 17: Saints 32, Falcons 38

(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Week 16: Falcons 33, Panthers 16

(Photo by Jim Dedmon/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

NFC Championship: Packers 21, Falcons 44

(Photo by David E. Klutho /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

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During the playoffs they kept up that precise pace against offenses led by Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers, yielding 20 and 21 points, respectively, in wins over Seattle and Green Bay.

Safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Deion Jones are the only two rookies with 100 tackles during the regular season.

In the postseason, linebacker De'Vondre Campbell has been one of Atlanta's best run stoppers, and cornerback Brian Poole has become a reliable contributor.

"Every day we are just trying to get 1 percent better for the guy next to us," Poole told the team's website.

The rookie quartet has augmented a trio of second-year players in Vic Beasley Jr., Grady Jarrett and Jalen Collins for Quinn, the former defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks.

Beasley, the NFL sack leader, and nose tackle Jarrett have anchored the defensive line, while 2015 second-rounder Collins has filled in for injured cornerback Desmond Trufant and in his last four games forced a fumble and recovered it, and snared a pair of interceptions.

"We feel like we have potential to be a great defense," said Beasley about a unit that ranked 28th in the NFL against the pass.

"Early in the season, we weren't playing as well but we came a long way and are now going to the Super Bowl."

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