Falcons hold off Titans 23-17, still not clicking

BY foxsports • November 21, 2011

The Atlanta Falcons still have plenty of things to work on.

At least they'll be trying to improve coming off a win.

Matt Ryan threw for 316 yards, Roddy White had his best game of the season, and Michael Turner turned in a bruising performance on the ground, covering up for Atlanta's shortcomings Sunday in a 23-17 win over the Tennessee Titans.

The Falcons (6-4) struggled in the red zone, settling for three short field goals by Matt Bryant and fumbling another chance away. They allowed Tennessee (5-5) to get back in the game behind rookie quarterback Jake Locker, who threw a pair of touchdown passes after Matt Hasselbeck went out with an injured right elbow.

''When we get the ball in there close, we've got to score touchdowns,'' Ryan said. ''That's something we'll work on and try to get better at this week.''

The defending NFC South champions, who came into this season rated as a leading Super Bowl contender, know they still have lots of work to do to live up to the hype.

''Not looking ahead, but once we get to the playoff-caliber teams, we've got to be able to put that ball in the end zone,'' said tight end Tony Gonzalez, who caught a 17-yard touchdown pass and became just the 13th player in NFL history to reach 13,000 yards receiving. ''I think we will. We have the talent and we have the players and we have the execution to do it. But we haven't been able to do it.''

Still, it was a satisfying win after the disappointment of the previous week. In a crucial division game against New Orleans, the Falcons rallied from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, then lost in overtime when coach Mike Smith made a much-debated call to go for it on fourth down deep in his own territory. The Saints stuffed Turner for no gain and kicked the winning field goal.

Atlanta has always done a good job of bouncing back under Smith, improving to 16-3 off losses since their coach took over in 2008.

''We don't let things linger,'' Smith said. ''We wipe our slate clean and we move on.''

Locker took over late in the third quarter after Hasselbeck went out, having endured an ineffective day even before a Falcons defender struck him on a follow-through. The youngster hooked up with Nate Washington on a pair of touchdown passes, but the Falcons managed to run out the clock after Ryan completed a third-down pass to Harry Douglas that was barely enough for the first down.

White, who was leading the NFL with nine dropped passes, bobbled another one away but more than made up for it with his longest reception of the season, a 43-yarder that set up a touchdown run by Turner on the first possession of the second half. White also took a short pass for a 32-yard gain, leading to Bryant's final field goal and a 23-3 lead that looked safe, especially when Hasselbeck went out.

White finished with seven receptions for a season-high 147 yards.

Turner set the tone for the bruising ground game, running over safety Michael Griffin for a 35-yard gain and scoring on a 4-yard burst.

Atlanta was still comfortably ahead even after Locker threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Washington. In fact, the Falcons appeared to be driving for the decisive score when Turner had the ball knocked loose by Colin McCarthy at the Tennessee 8, and Will Witherspoon recovered.

Locker took advantage of Atlanta's lone turnover, guiding Tennessee on a 14-play, 84-yard drive that included a fourth-and-17 conversion and was capped by a 4-yard scoring pass to Washington with 3:06 remaining.

The rookie didn't get a chance to complete the comeback, watching as Ryan kneeled down in the final seconds.

''It was a lot of fun,'' said Locker, who was 9 of 19 for 140 yards. ''I would have liked a better outcome, but it was fun to be out there competing.''

Coach Mike Munchak said he didn't think the injury to Hasselbeck would keep him out for an extended period and left little doubt he's still the No. 1 quarterback, even though he threw for just 124 yards.

''I'm happy for the team that we bounced back,'' Hasselbeck said. ''It hurts to come up short.''

Atlanta jumped out to a 13-0 lead on Ryan's touchdown pass to Gonzalez and Bryant's first two field goals. At that point, the Titans had not even crossed midfield.

Tennessee finally got going but simply made too many mistakes to win on the road for the second week in a row. The Titans were penalized 10 times - two of which came on third down to extend Atlanta scoring drives - and Hasselbeck threw an interception that led to the first Atlanta field goal.

Plus, Chris Johnson had one of the worst games of his career in what has already been a hugely disappointing season. He followed up a 130-yard effort against Carolina with a season-low 13 yards on 12 carries, his longest gain going for only 6 yards.

''You go back to the last game and I got 130 and everything was good,'' Johnson said. ''You come back to this game and nothing is working. It goes back to the offense not executing, not being consistent.''


Follow Paul Newberry at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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