Young Falcons defense still inspired by Dwight Freeney speech

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It was far from a tongue-lashing, but the powerful message still resonates in the Atlanta Falcons' locker room a month later.

On the first Saturday night in December, seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney stood up in the defensive meeting room and offered a heartfelt speech to a group that included four rookies and three second-year starters. His purpose was to light a fire going into the final stretch of the season.

“It was very inspiring,” said Vic Beasley Jr., the NFL sacks leader. “Just seeing a vet step up to the plate just speaks volumes for us as players. It was just encouraging, just knowing what we had ahead of us and knowing what we could be. He reminded us of that.”

Although there were some hiccups the next day in a 29-28 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the defense showed more signs of progress. The momentum really got rolling after that, when the Falcons allowed 14.3 points per game, 11.1 points less than their season average, over a three-game stretch.

Sure, the offenses presented by the Rams, 49ers and Panthers weren't very intimidating, but it certainly helped the Falcons from a confidence standpoint heading into this Saturday's divisional playoff matchup against the Seattle Seahawks.

"I think it was time to address the magnitude of what we were going into, the realm of consciousness that we needed to enter into, knowing that we were going into a fourth-quarter type of mode,” Freeney said. “I just had to explain to them and let them know, 'Look, man, this is December football, bro. This is when it’s time to turn it up. That’s this moment right now.'"

Again, it wasn't an in-your-face type of pep talk. That's not Freeney's style.

"I’m going talk to you like, 'Let me speak to you for a minute,'" Freeney said. “That’s it."

The youthful Falcons certainly understand the magnitude of this moment. The Falcons' offense, averaging almost 34 points per game, has MVP candidate Matt Ryan and the virtually unstoppable Julio Jones. The question is, can a defense playing without top cornerback Desmond Trufant (pectoral surgery) play well enough to keep the Falcons' Super Bowl aspirations alive?

Freeney certainly believes so. And his encouraging words helped the younger players have more belief in themselves going into their first postseason game.

“He was basically telling us that this is the time of the season when you really dig deep and find out what drives you and what your purpose is. Find out why you do this and hold on tight to it,” rookie strong safety Keanu Neal said of Freeney's message. ”He’s so well-spoken. He just gets his point across.”

Said rookie linebacker De'Vondre Campbell: “It meant a lot coming from a guy who has been in the league for 15 years and has been to countless Pro Bowls and to two Super Bowls. He's been through it all and seen it all. He's reached the ultimate prize. He's won a Super Bowl. He's been there.”

If this year's version of the Falcons is going to get there, they need to take care of business first on Saturday. That will include containing Russell Wilson and his ability to make plays with his feet, stopping a running game expected to feature Thomas Rawls as the primary back and possibly third-down threat C.J. Prosise and limiting the big-play ability of receivers such Doug Baldwin, tight end Jimmy Graham and the suddenly emerging Paul Richardson.

Beasley could be a game-changer with his devastating first step and ability to track down Wilson. And the rookie combination of Deion Jones, Neal, Campbell and nickelback Brian Poole no doubt will be key factors with their young legs and speed.

“For us to be a young as we are, I think we are a pivotal part in making sure this team is successful,” Campbell said. “We just have to be on our s--- and don't make anything up and do our job. Then we'll be fine.”

They obviously get the message.