Smith has Falcons primed for a long playoff run

The Atlanta Falcons are sitting atop the NFC standings at 7-2

and they’ve won three straight games.

Mike Smith thinks they deserve a break.

The coach gave his players the weekend off so they can

recuperate from winning two close games in five days.

The Falcons feel their 26-21 victory Thursday over Baltimore

proves they are as competitive as any team in the NFL.

”You can sense it when they walk into the locker room from

practice, when they’re out there on the field, and this is a very

close-knit group,” Smith said Friday. ”These are men who know

what their jobs are.”

The win against Baltimore is the kind of collective team

performance that could give Atlanta confidence it can advance deep

into the playoffs.

The defense held Baltimore scoreless on its first five

possessions, and despite allowing touchdowns on three of the

Ravens’ last five, played well overall.

Defensive ends John Abraham, Kroy Biermann and Chauncey Davis

combined for five solo tackles, one pass breakup, two sacks and two

additional quarterback hits. Brent Grimes was beaten on two

touchdown passes, but the left-side cornerback had the game’s only

interception, and it led to a third-quarter field goal.

The offense built a 10-point lead as quarterback Matt Ryan ran a

no-huddle offense exclusively throughout the first half. On the

winning drive, the Falcons returned to the no-huddle, and Ryan

completed three passes, including Roddy White’s second touchdown

catch of the game.

Atlanta’s power running game was held to 60 yards rushing on 23

carries. Reserve Jason Snelling, who caught a 28-yard TD pass,

played a bigger role than starter Michael Turner.

”We have definable roles for guys, but those roles can

change,” Smith said. ”They’re an unselfish group, and they know

they have to be accountable to one another if we’re going to be

successful.”

Smith, whose three-year stay in Atlanta includes a 22-1 record

when his team begins the fourth quarter with a lead, was pleased

with how well Ryan ran the no-huddle offense.

In his rookie season as the NFL’s No. 3 overall draft pick of

2008, Ryan called between 10-12 plays from the no-huddle. Now he

calls 30-32 plays.

Atlanta’s no-huddle formations aren’t so much designed to speed

up the pace of the offense as they are used to keep a defense from

disguising coverages.

Before the snap, when his receivers take their place at the line

of scrimmage, Ryan instructs each with a different route based on

defensive alignment.

Ryan used the no-huddle throughout the first half to build a

10-point lead, and the Falcons brought it back on the winning

drive.

”I thought he did a good job of getting us into the right plays

based on the looks,” Smith said. ”And the attack at the end of

the game, you can’t operate any better than that.”

Though the Falcons’ offensive identity is based on a power

running game, they changed their approach against Baltimore. In the

first half, Ryan handed the ball to his running backs 14 times for

34 meager yards, but he completed 20 of 28 passes for 160 yards and

one touchdown.

”We feel confident we know the system really well and we felt

that it would keep some of what Baltimore did (defensively)

vanilla,” Ryan said. ”The plan wasn’t necessarily to come out and

throw it on every snap, but that’s just kind of the looks we were

getting.”

Smith loved the outcome for a team that’s 27-14 in his tenure

and pushing for its second playoff berth in three years. He never

doubted the outcome Thursday after Baltimore took a one-point lead

with 1:05 remaining.

”There was an air of confidence about what needed to be done

and what we were going to get done,” Smith said. ”It was a heck

of a drive in the last 65 seconds for us to win the game.”