New Orleans — First, a spot of perspective. The Falcons are 8-1 and positioned to win their division. Just because they lost an excruciating game to the hated Saints doesn’t override all the good work that came before. That said …
The good work that came before didn’t include much in the way of short-yardage excellence. And when a team that couldn’t convert on fourth-and-1 on three infamous occasions last season loses its first game of another year due to the same failures, a flag gets hoisted. No, not a white one of surrender, but surely a bright red banner of warning.
“I don’t know what situation you’d rather be in,” said Michael Turner, the feature back who managed 15 yards on 13 rushes Sunday. “You’ve got one yard for the lead.”
“You’ve got to punch the ball in,” said Jacquizz Rodgers, the change-of-pace back whose 18-yard burst had pulled the Falcons within sight of that final yard.
“Of course you (think you’re going to get that yard),” said Harry Douglas, the receiver who barely missed scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a slant on first-and-goal from the 10. “That has to be your approach.”
That the Falcons’ first play from the 1 was a Matt Ryan pass for Tony Gonzalez tells us they weren’t convinced they could push the Saints backward even three feet. (Malcolm Jenkins knocked the ball down in the end zone.) That the third-and-goal call was a handoff to Turner that became yet another damp squib — of his 13 carries, seven either gained nothing or lost yardage — drove home the point:
An 8-0 NFL team could not line up and gain a precious yard against the league’s worst rushing defense.
By losing a yard on third-and-goal, the Falcons had no choice but to pass on fourth down, and again Ryan’s pass was flicked away. This time it was Jabari Greer, flashing in front of Roddy White. The Falcons would get the ball one last time, but their chance to stay unbeaten had come and gone.
Not that staying unbeaten was such a big deal. “That’s a distraction out of the way,” free safety Thomas DeCoud said, and he had a point. Trouble is, the the Falcons never want to lose to the opponent that has beaten the Falcons of Mike Smith seven times in nine tries.
DeCoud again: “That’s the one team you don’t want to have your first loss against.”
That Sunday’s game was a carnival ride surprised no one. Ryan threw for 411 yards, a career best, and if not — stop me if you’ve heard this one — for a failure on third-and-1 on the Falcons’ second series they might have seized a 14-0 lead.The Saints, who can play offense if not D, overrode that early deficit and took an 11-point lead midway through the third quarter. The Falcons cut it to four points with a touchdown and an extra point, Smith choosing (oddly and wrongly) not to go for two with 13:27 remaining.
They would draw within one point on a field goal after an incompletion on third-and-2. The Saints pushed the lead back to four, leaving the door ajar. The Falcons were too weak to kick it in.
Said Smith: “We were not getting the surge we needed on running plays … We did not win the line of scrimmage in the running game.”
Said Todd McClure, the center: “Every third-and-1 (not converted), every fourth-and-1 … I’m sure there’ll be a lot written about it tomorrow and we’ll be (seen as) a terrible offensive line. But we didn’t get it done today.”
For all their skill — the Falcons outgained the sleek Saints — the question remains: Is this team forceful enough? And not just along the O-line: The Falcons’ defense yielded 148 yards rushing and mustered one sack. For eight games people had been saying, “There’s going to come a time when the inability to run the ball and/or stop the run is going to bite this team.” That time arrived Sunday.
“We’ve got to address (the issues in the running game),” Turner said. “We’ve got to fix it. That’s what championship teams do. There’s attitude, there’s scheme … everything’s involved.”
The Falcons are 8-1. They did not become a terrible team by losing one game, but they cannot become a great one until they figure a way to gain a yard when a yard is mandatory. Is Turner too slow? Is the line too feeble? And if the answer, as seems likely, is a combination of the two, how do you work around it?
After every game, win or lose, Mike Smith says of any lapse, “We’ll get it fixed.” His Falcons have seven more games before the playoffs commence, which means …
Clock’s ticking, Smitty.
Further reading: Here’s why Mike Smith should have gone for two.
By Mark Bradley