Sunday July 22nd, 2018 2:50AM

Falcons' young defense needs to start taking the ball away

By The Associated Press

FLOWERY BRANCH — Matt Ryan's turnovers have drawn much of the attention in Atlanta.

Yet there are two sides to this issue for the Falcons.

Not only has the NFL's reigning MVP been sloppy with the ball the last two games, throwing five interceptions and losing a fumble, the defense has failed to produce the number of takeaways expected from a speedy, aggressive unit.

The Falcons (3-1) have come up with just one pick and one fumble a quarter of the way through the season, resulting in one of the NFL's worst turnover margins.
While everyone insists it's not a major concern given the team's record, the stat must be especially galling to coach Dan Quinn. After all, he's a defensive specialist who harps constantly on the importance of snatching the ball away from the other team.

"I hopeful we're like a good shooter who is 1 out of 8 but we're about to get hot," Quinn said Thursday, breaking into a smile.

Since he arrived three years ago, the Falcons have used the bulk of their draft picks to assemble a defense that can attack the ball every chance it gets. They've certainly got some big hitters, most notably linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and safeties Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee, but they haven't delivered enough of the blows — especially on the quarterback — that lead to turnovers.

Tackling has also been a major focus for Atlanta, which hosts the Miami Dolphins (2-2) on Sunday coming off a bye week.

"The better at tackling you are — not just thinking about the ball — but getting your tackle right, so then the second and third guy can take shots at the ball," Quinn said. "We're not concerned, because we do emphasize it. We love the speed, love the energy. We just think as we get more reps at it, we're going to get our shots."

The secondary also needs to step it up. Cornerback Desmond Trufant has the only interceptions so far, picking off Green Bay's Aaron Rogers in a Week 2 victory that was clearly Atlanta's most impressive performance of the season.

The Falcons have missed on some other chances. In their last outing against Buffalo, Trufant had a change to pick off a pass but couldn't hang on, a potentially crucial play that could've changed the entire complexion of the game. As it was, the Bills pulled off a 23-17 upset, taking advantage of two interceptions and a fumble by Ryan that was returned for a touchdown.

"We didn't capitalize when we had our hands on the football," Quinn said. "That's a play (Trufant) would like to have back. Well, you don't get 'em back. You nail 'em when your opps come."

The Falcons have certainly devoted plenty of draft picks toward building the type of ball-hawking group that Quinn had in his previous job as Seattle's defensive coordinator.

Each of the last three years, Atlanta has taken a defensive player in the first round — defensive end Vic Beasley Jr. in 2015, Neal in 2016 and linebacker Takkarist McKinley this year. Campbell, Kazee, linebacker Deion Jones, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and linebacker Duke Riley have also been drafted during the Quinn era, quickly developing into key contributors.

"You've just got to be aware of the ball at all times," McKinley said. "If we've got a chance to get a sack and we're chasing the quarterback down from the back, we've got to attack his arm and get the ball out."

The rookie is confident that things will soon turn around.

Perhaps this is the week, facing the offensively challenged Dolphins.

"Turnovers come in bunches," McKinley said. "It's just a matter of time."

Quinn shares that optimism.

"I think we're about to get hot on some of those," the coach said, "because of the way we play."

Notes: WR Julio Jones remained limited at Thursday's practice because of a hip injury but insisted there's no chance he won't play against the Dolphins. "Limited means, really, nothing," he said. "I'll be ready to go." ... Jones also said he's not concerned about a glaring number on the stat sheet: zero touchdown receptions through four games. "I don't know why people are worried about Julio Jones. I'm not worried about it," he said. "Whatever the defense gives us, we're going to take. If that's me going out there and not scoring and we're still winning games, that's fine with me." ... WR Mohamed Sanu (hamstring), defensive lineman Courtney Upshaw (ankle/knee) and kicker Matt Bryant (back) also skipped practice, though Sanu did some conditioning work on the side. The Falcons guarded against the possibility that Bryant can't go by signing kicker Mike Meyer to the practice squad. He was with the team in the preseason, making 3-of-4 field goal attempts.

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