By Michael Cunningham
FLOWERY BRANCH–Three times the Falcons went for it on third-and-short, three times they failed, and the repercussions rang in their ears throughout last offseason.
Those were the lasting images from their blowout playoffs defeat at the Giants in January. There were echoes when the Falcons flopped on short-yardage runs during their 28-27 loss at New Orleans on Sunday.
The offensive line took much of the heat for the Giants game and center Todd McClure doesn’t want that narrative to gain steam again.
“I get really frustrated when I hear things and read things knowing there’s more to it that five guys up front but we take the brunt of the blame.”
McClure didn’t elaborate on which factors led to the short-yardage struggles, but obviously line play is just one aspect of the rushing offense.
It starts with the play called in the huddle, including blocking schemes, and adjustments to either or both can be made at the line of scrimmage. The running backs have to make the right reads as the play unfolds.
Whatever the reason for the issues, the Falcons have to be better when they need a yard or two. They failed to convert runs on four short-yardage situations against the Saints, none more costly than Michael Turner’s one-yard loss on third-and-goal in the final two minutes.
“It’s a bad thing,” Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “If you had a magic wand and could wave it, then it would be easy to fix everything if you had that magic wand. [Short runs], that’s one part of the game. We came up short in that part and eventually that added up to us coming up short on the scoreboard.”
In many ways, Atlanta’s issues converting in short-yardage situations make little sense in the context of its overall offensive performance on third down.
The Falcons rank third in the league with a 47.5 percent conversion rate on third downs. They are second in the league on third down and from between four and six yards to go but 50 percent on third-and-one.
“Those are the ones that are very visible,” Falcons offensive line coach Pat Hill said. ”A third-and-four, you don’t make it and you run off the field and no one says anything. A third and one, it’s ‘Why didn’t you make it?’ When you have a play that seems easy and obvious sometimes those are the most difficult.”
Hill said that’s especially true near the goal line, where the defense has less field to cover and can be more aggressive. A small mistake in execution by one offensive player can ruin the play.
Also, the offense has fewer play-call options against a defense that’s expecting a run.
“They are challenging because you need one yard and everybody knows you need one yard,” Koetter said. “It’s like you’re trying to make one yard and they’re trying to defend one yard. Maybe we ought to just pretend it’s third-and-10 and we might be better off.”
Turner’s final run illustrated the problems Atlanta had when it tried to overpower the Saints.
The Falcons lined up with seven players tight on the line of scrimmage, fullback Ryan Cox in the backfield and tight end Michael Palmer in motion behind the linemen. That’s nine blockers total, and yet the Saints still were able to swarm Turner in the backfield for a one-yard loss.
Saints defenders were in the backfield quickly on Atlanta’s two other failed runs near the goal line.
“We had a lot of penetration in a couple situations,” Hill said. “It’s a situation where the execution has to be at its highest level along with technique . . . and you’ve got to give credit to the defense sometimes.”
Turner was the ball carrier on all four failed short-yardage runs. He finished with 15 yards on 13 carried with a long of nine yards while Jacquizz Rodgers had 29 yards on three carries with a long of 18 yards.
Turner has made a career out of being a power runner but the Falcons have focused more on passing the ball this season. Against New Orleans they passed for touchdowns twice after Turner was stopped short on runs and tried to pass again following Turner’s final one-yard loss.
Koetter said Turner “had no chance” on most of his runs because there were defenders running free at the point of attack. He said the Falcons have to run the ball more efficiency regardless of which running back is carrying the ball.
That gets back to McClure’s point: running the ball in short-yardage situations is a team effort.
“It is in every aspect of it,” McClure said. “But we get the ball on the one, we are expected to get it in. I just get frustrated sometimes [with the criticism] the past couple years. There’s more to it than just lining up and blocking the guys wherever they line up.”
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