Prolonged ruts on offense hurting Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons have one of the best offenses in the NFL and some of the best players in the league at the skill positions yet twice in the last two weeks the unit has stalled for prolonged periods.

The Falcons’ survived doldrums in the second and third quarter of a 23-13 win over New Orleans on Nov. 29, but largely because the defense came up with five interceptions in that game. The Falcons had five straight possessions in that game in which they punted four times and kicked a lone field goal on the other. The field goal came after the Falcons took over at the Saints’ 29-yard line following an interception and moved the ball only two yards before kicking a field goal.

On Sunday in Carolina, the Falcons played about as bad of a half of football as they have in years. They ran only 13 offensive plays, totaled two first downs and amassed only 35 yards of total offense at the break as they trailed 16-0. The defense, which was part of the problem, did not come to the rescue on that occasion and that spelled the Falcons’ second loss of the season, 30-20.

“Anytime you’re not efficient, you’re concerned and it’s not just the offense,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith said about the dry spells. “It’s the offense, defense, and special teams. You’ve got to be concerned about it when you’re not playing up to your abilities and I don’t think we played up to our abilities yesterday in any phase, not just the offense.”

The reasons for the ruts are numerous but one of the major issues has been converting on third down. The Falcons have not converted a third-down situation in the first half in each of the last two weeks. Overall, they went 1-for-11 against New Orleans and 2-for-8 against Carolina. Smith said 40 percent will rank a team among the better ones in the league. The Falcons are 15.8 percent in the last two games.

In addition, one consequence of falling down 23-0 four minutes into the second half was that it took the running game out of the Falcons’ playbook. Michael Turner, who had two rushes for three yards in the first half, finished with seven carries for 14 yards. As a team, the Falcons ran the ball 11 times for 35 yards.

“Offense as a whole, we were just trying to get the ball moving,” Turner said of abandoning the run. “Just get some first downs. We couldn’t get any first downs. We need better production on first down, first and second down, to make third down manageable so guys won’t have their ears pinned back, going after (quarterback Matt Ryan) and teeing off on him. Got to get ball rolling and keep it moving.”

Smith said the problem is as simple at times as a receiver running a route short of the first-down marker so even a completed pass fails. Against New Orleans, the Falcons twice completed check-down passes to Jason Snelling, who ended up a yard short each time.

While Ryan finished with 342 yards passing, 302 of them came in the second half. Ryan, in particular, needs to improve his consistency. While he is having arguably his best season as a pro, it might also be said that he’s in something of a slump.

Two of his three lowest-rated games have come in the last four games. The New Orleans’ game represented his lowest passing yardage total of the season (165).

“First half, we certainly didn’t play the way we wanted to,” Ryan said after the game. “We talked about coming out and trying to start fast and we didn’t do that. We left our defense on the field too long. We had some opportunities to convert on some third downs early in the game and we didn’t do a good job of that and, therefore, their offense did a great job of staying on the field and having a couple of long drives to start.”

Next up for the Falcons is defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants (8-5) at the Georgia Dome on Sunday. The Giants, who beat the Falcons 24-2 in the playoffs last season, racked up 52 points against New Orleans on Sunday.

The Falcons’ offensive players know they have to be better.

“Clearly, we got things to improve on,” Turner said. “We got to understand that we’re going to get teams’ best shot from here on out so we got to play better and everybody’s got to take responsibility and step their game up.”

The Falcons have shown the ability to bounce back under Smith. They are 19-3 after a loss during his tenure. Right tackle Tyson Clabo said the Falcons have a strong “will to win.”

“I think it speaks to the veterans that we have,” he said. “The will to win is when you don’t perform and you don’t achieve your goal, you know, there’s just something inside a competitor and a winner that responds and I think we have a lot of veterans in here that you don’t play as long in this league as these guys have without having that — that desire to perform and to win — and I think our past performances after loses are an indication of that.

“Having said that, what we’ve done in the past will have no bearing on what we do this week.”