FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — After Michael Turner had pounded the ball into the end zone from one yard away for what would prove to be the Falcons’ winning score in their 23-19 win over Arizona on Sunday, 35-year-old center Todd McClure, all 296 pounds of him, ran over to Turner and jumped on the running back in celebration.
One week after the Falcons suffered their only loss of the season, 31-27, to New Orleans in large part because they failed to run the ball in from the 1-yard-line — raising questions that date to last year about their ability in short yardage situations — they had succeeded in a phase of the game that has gnawed at their collective psyches and left some of them raw, the usually level-headed and accommodating McClure among them.
The success came after a second-quarter situation when the Falcons ran the ball on third-and-1 from the Cardinals’ 32 but linebacker Daryl Washington stopped Jason Snelling for a one-yard loss.
“I was pretty pumped, man,” McClure said of Turner’s score on Sunday. “Situations that happened last week and, little do you know, it comes right back up. Third-and-goal, game on the line, and we got it done. Then there at the end, third-and-2, we needed a first down to seal the game, we got it done.
“It was a rough week for everybody and there’s definitely a little added pressure there. The first third-and-short we didn’t get. But I don’t know if you want to use the word redemption, but we got it done today and we’re going to have to get it done for the rest of the season.”
A week ago, McClure was asked about comparisons between the failings against the Saints and similar ones against the New York Giants in a 24-2 loss in the NFC Wildcard playoff round. During the offseason, the Falcons fired their offensive line coach of the previous four seasons under whom they had excellent success and hired a new one. Their first two picks in the 2012 NFL Draft were both offensive linemen, one of whom, Peter Konz, now starts at right guard.
McClure uncharacteristically bristled at the question with its implicit criticism of the offensive line, a group in which four of the five starters have remained virtually unchanged since 2008.
“You know, that’s two totally different ballgames and that’s what pisses me off more than anything is you guys are going to write about how bad we are up front and that we can’t get in the end zone but there’s more to it than just blocking up front and that’s all I’m going to say about that,” McClure said. “I get really frustrated when I hear things and I read things knowing there’s more to it than five guys up front but we take the blunt of the blame and I don’t want to talk about it anymore because I don’t want to say anything I regret.”
McClure’s comments made a stir both locally and, to a degree, nationally. Some suggested that he was pointing the fingers at others — maybe Turner or the others involved in blocking for the running game, either the fullback or tight ends. But he did not offer further specifics and seemed to point more to the idea that the running game has to operate as a whole — from the play call, to the blocking schemes, to the running back’s timing and that all of those, perhaps, were what was off kilter.
On Wednesday, when a large media contingent visits the team’s practice facility, McClure was not present for the open locker room session, which is a rarity, and as a result did not have to answer follow-up questions about his comment. Right tackle Tyson Clabo, who is now behind his second campaign to try and get McClure selected to the Pro Bowl, took to Twitter to defend his teammate.
After Sunday’s game, Clabo explained the sense of relief among all the linemen.
“Well, we weren’t losing anymore so that was a big load off everyone’s backs,” he said. “Obviously, look, when everybody makes a big deal about something, right? Everyone gets a little bit uptight, which I think is what happened on that (first) third-and-1. That’s all you talk about all week, ‘third down, third down, third down.’ Then here comes third down and everybody tenses up.
“I think on that touchdown run, everybody just relaxed and played football and that’s why we got in. I was definitely happy that we scored. There’s no doubt.”
Head coach Mike Smith said the blocking in those two late short-yardage situations ranked among the few positives for the offense in a game in which the Falcons were lucky to win despite committing six turnovers. Smith said that in the period from 2003 until yesterday, teams were 59-2 when holding a turnover advantage of plus-5.
“You’ve got to get back on the horse when you get thrown off it,” Smith said. “We didn’t convert down there the week before and we needed to make sure we got it done this week when we had the opportunity. That was one of the few things probably we did well on offense. When you really look at the things we did above and below the line, knocking the ball in our goal line offense was something we hadn’t been very successful at so it was nice to get that done.”
McClure said the Falcons’ effort was about “will.” Nonetheless, he admitted on that third-and-1 in the second quarter, the linemen were tense.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you there weren’t tight buttholes, you know, when we got out there,” he said. “Just telling the truth. It was a pressure situation, a situation we had to step up and get. The team’s counting on us. I felt like we got it done today when it mattered.”