FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — For most of last season, all they could do was watch.
Watch as the Atlanta Falcons tried desperately to fill their spots.
Watch as the team tumbled to a losing record.
When Deion Jones, Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal take the field for Sunday's season opener at Minnesota, they'll be eager to show just what this team was missing when three of its defensive standouts went down with serious injuries.
"Everybody can say they've got the best team in the world right now," Allen said. "But we know who we are. We know what we've done together. If we can pull it together, if we can stay healthy and play together, the sky's the limit."
Just two seasons removed from a trip to the Super Bowl, the Falcons went into 2018 with high expectations.
But Neal, the strong safety and a fearsome hitter, tore up a knee in the very first game at Philadelphia and was done for the year. Jones, a fly-around-field linebacker, injured a foot in that very same game and missed the next 10 contests. Allen, the free safety and inspirational leader of the defense, went down with a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 3.
The Falcons never recovered from that trio of devastating blows, stumbling to a 7-9 record. Atlanta ranked near the bottom of the league in most major defensive categories, including 28th in yards allowed at nearly 385 per game.
It was a stunning drop-off for a team that placed eighth the previous season with an average of 318.4 yards.
"You're talking about right up the center of our defense," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "That's tough on a defense when the center of it at that second level kind of gets taken away."
Losing those three players had a ripple effect throughout the defense. Not only were there lesser players in key positions, but those around them didn't play with the same level of aggressiveness. Perhaps they tried to do a little too much to help cope with the injuries. Maybe they were back on their heels just a bit, looking to avoid big plays rather than taking chances.
Whatever the case, coach Dan Quinn — who is now also serving as defensive coordinator — didn't like what he saw.
"He didn't think the defense looked physical last year," said Jerome Henderson, the secondary coach and pass defense coordinator. "He didn't think we looked like a defense that was going to knock people back and be in people's faces. It wasn't what he wanted and what he expects. Our challenge this offseason was to bring physicalness back to our defense."
Jones, Allen and Neal should help to re-establish a bit of swagger on the defensive side.
All three were key players in the Falcons' run to the Super Bowl during the 2016 season. All three stepped up their games even more when Atlanta returned to the playoffs as a wild-card team in 2017, carried largely by a defense that allowed fewer than 20 points a game.
"As a defense, we've jumped in the top 10 before," Allen pointed out. "We've seen what we can do. Just put it all back together and be what we were the last time."
Ryan said the influence of Jones, Allen and Neal goes beyond their physical skills.
"We talk about communication on the offensive side of the ball," the quarterback said. "Communication on the defensive side of the ball is equally as important. Those guys are some of the best communicators that we have, getting other guys in the right spots, setting the defense the correct way, making sure the coverage calls are going the way they're supposed to. They're invaluable in that way."
Allen and Neal returned to the field during the preseason, proving they were fully recovered. The Falcons were more careful with Jones, even though he returned to play the final five games of the 2018 season. He didn't play in any preseason games, but will be in the starting lineup when Atlanta takes on the Vikings.
He can't wait to be reunited with those two guys behind him. It will be the first time they've all played together in 367 days,
"This is awesome," Jones said after practice Wednesday. "Hearing certain voices again, feeling certain presences out there like Keke — feeling his presence, hearing his voice — and Rico back in the middle of the field. I mean, it's dope. We're all together. Now we get to fly around and run around."