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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.

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.”

(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)