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Defensive-minded Quinn leads explosive Falcons into playoffs
Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan (2) works against the New Orleans Saints during the Falcons' Jan. 1 game in Atlanta. - photo by Associated Press

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Dan Quinn got a shot at being a head coach because of his work molding one of the league's best defenses.

Now, heading into the playoffs for the first time with a team of his own, he'll be relying heavily on the NFL's highest-scoring offense.

The incongruity is not lost on the Atlanta Falcons coach.

"I have not been in extra offensive meetings, that's for sure," Quinn joked.

The Falcons (11-5) romped to the NFC South title and a first-round bye in the playoffs largely because quarterback Matt Ryan turned in an MVP-worthy season — and got plenty of help from an absurdly deep receiving corps, a dynamic pair of running backs and a much-improved line .

Atlanta scored 540 points, an average of 33.8 per game and at least 100 points more than every other team in the league except New Orleans (469) and New England (441).

The Falcons finished second in total yards (an average of 415.8) behind only the Saints, and perhaps most impressively ranked among the top five in both passing (295.3) and rushing (120.5) yards.

When asked what his coach thinks about this style of play, Ryan deadpanned, "I think he's OK with scoring points, too. I don't think he's opposed to that."

The Atlanta defense?

Not nearly as impressive, though that was to be expected given as many as four rookies started at times . Atlanta ranked in the bottom half of the league in points (27th), yards (25th) and yards per play (21st).

"You can get jammed up if you just look at just the stats defensively," Quinn said, before quickly adding, "I know I have, for sure."

Certainly, this Falcons team isn't constructed like the one he worked for in Seattle, where he ran a star-powered defense that carried the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl title during the 2013 season, totally stifling Peyton Manning and the high-scoring Denver Broncos for a 43-8 rout.

That performance helped turn Quinn into one of the league's most sought-after assistants for a head coaching job.

Now, in an interesting twist, it's his offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, getting all the attention .

"I do have a real admiration for Kyle and the offensive staff and how they feature the players," Quinn said. "I think that's true on any really good team, whether it's offensively, defensively or special teams. How do you feature what the guys do best?"

Defense may be his specialty, but Quinn spends plenty of time working with both sides of the ball, proving especially helpful to Ryan when it comes to breaking down opponents.

"Dan knows a lot of ball," the quarterback said. "We talk a lot during the week about ways to attack defenses we're going against. He's excellent on that. I'm sure he's comfortable with the whole team we've got going into this playoff stretch."

Stats notwithstanding, Quinn doesn't buy into the notion that the Falcons are strictly a one-dimensional team. He's getting more and more comfortable with his defense.

"There's a bigger story there in terms of the style and attitude and ball-hawking and tackling that goes into it," Quinn said. "All along, we've kind of kept pressing on the message: We're gonna get there."

Certainly, there's a huge amount of upside on the defensive side. Vic Beasley , who led the league with 15.5 sacks, is a second-year player. The top two tacklers, linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal, are both rookies. Of the nine players who started at least nine games, only two have more than two years of experience in the pros.

The dynamic offense has given those guys some room to grow.

It also gives them something to shoot for.

"When we go out there, we want to match them," said Neal, a first-round pick who quickly established himself as one of the leaders of the defense with his fearless, hard-hitting style. "If they get a touchdown, we've got to get a three-and-out."

Quinn said the defense has really grown since a tough loss at Philadelphia, which was followed by a bye in Week 11. The Falcons were 6-4 at the time, no lock for the playoffs. But they closed the season winning five of the last six , the only setback a bizarre loss in which Kansas City picked off a pass and returned it for a winning two-point conversion in the closing minutes.

During that stretch, the Falcons held four opponents under 20 points, and they were up 38-13 on Drew Brees and the Saints through three quarters of the regular-season finale . Even though they gave up three touchdowns in the final period and had to hold on at the end, it didn't diminish the progress the defense has made.

"From a communication standpoint, we've gotten a lot better," Neal said. "We're playing so much faster because we understand the defense and what offenses are trying to do to us."

But in these playoffs, Quinn knows he'll probably have rely more on scoring points than he did in Seattle.

He's good with that.

"Just watch him on the sideline. He's very pumped up," star receiver Julio Jones said. "It's a fun time right now."