The Falcons enter their bye week as the only undefeated team in the NFL with a two-victory lead over the rest of the NFC.
They don’t talk like a 6-0 squad, though, because they have hardly looked the part of a juggernaut.
That’s probably why, following Atlanta’s 23-20 victory over Oakland on Sunday, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan cited the team’s undefeated record on the one hand and acknowledged troublesome trends on the other.
“We’ve been good enough to win and at the end of the day, that’s what you need to do,” Ryan said. “I think it’s going to be important for us, this bye week, to try and find ways for us to play our best and to look critically at ourselves and try and improve.”
Style doesn’t count in the standings, but the quality of Atlanta’s play is regressing even as the victories keep coming.
Atlanta’s problems both running the ball and stopping the run are still apparent and the secondary’s knack for making big plays has masked problems with pass coverage and tackling. Atlanta’s offensive line play has been inconsistent and the limitations of a pass-heavy offense reliant on Ryan are starting to show.
The Falcons have some time to sort things out. Their next game is Oct. 28 at Philadelphia.
“Our goal is try to be better tomorrow than today,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said Monday. “There are times that we take steps forward and times we take steps back.”
While earning another another victory Sunday, Atlanta took another step back after opening the season with convincing victories against the Chiefs, Broncos and Chargers. The Falcons got past Oakland (1-4) only when Matt Bryant kicked a 55-yard field goal with one second left in the game.
It was the third time in three games Atlanta had to rally to win in the fourth quarter.
“This game took a lot out of us as a defense (so) this off week, in those respects, is right on time,” Falcons defensive back Dunta Robinson said. “We’ve still got a long season ahead of us. We are not where we want to be. We are 6-0 going into the bye (but) we know we are going to get everybody’s best shot so we’ve got to take it to another level.”
The Raiders found themselves stride for stride with the Falcons with a suddenly rejuvenated offense and some ball-hawking defense. Smith said close games between seemingly mismatched opponents and upset losses in the NFL reinforce the notion that “each week is a hard battle.”
Still, the Falcons have yet to play a contender. The combined record of their six opponents, discounting their losses to Atlanta: 11-15.
Smith and his staff have plenty to work on during the off week.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter prefers a balanced attack but last week said the best approach was to put the game in Ryan’s hands because the quarterback’s play had been superlative. That strategy didn’t pay dividends against Oakland; Ryan wasn’t as sharp while tossing three interceptions.
Ryan faced a heavy pass rush and Atlanta had virtually no running game to relieve the pressure. Ryan’s 15-yard scramble was its longest run of the game. The Falcons totaled 45 yards on 15 attempts after gaining 83 yards on 28 attempts at Washington the week before.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, stressing that winning is the bottom line, acknowledges that his unit’s struggles to stop the run could eventually cost the Falcons. That nearly happened against the Raiders, who churned out 149 yards on 32 attempts. Shoddy tackling has become another issue.
The Falcons will address those weaknesses and others.
“I think the really good thing about this football team is they are not satisfied,” Smith said. “There is a desire in there to play better football. We’ve been very fortunate.”
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