Falcons lament giving up big plays in loss to Pats
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — It's the kind of play that wins and loses games.
The Atlanta Falcons had the Patriots' offense backed up to New England's 12-yard line. It was third down and 19. The Falcons trailed by only three (13-10) early in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots converted a 26-yard pass to Kenbrell Thompkins and, on the tackle, safety William Moore received a 15-yard penalty for a hit to the head. The next play, New England’s LaGarrette Blount broke off a 47-yard touchdown run.
The eventual margin of defeat was seven points in the 30-23 loss, dropping the Falcons to 1-3.
Head coach Mike Smith said the Falcons would concentrate this week on their third-down defense, which ranks among the worst in the NFL (31st overall). Opponents are converting at a rate of 49 percent.
The Patriots converted 54 percent on Sunday night. In the Falcons’ loss to the Dolphins last week, Miami converted all three third-down attempts on its game-winning touchdown drive in the final minutes.
Veteran cornerback Asante Samuel, the four-time Pro Bowler, was inactive on Sunday for the second time this season.
Samuel has only played 23.1 percent of the snaps this season, due to a recurring thigh injury. As such, rookie Robert Alford, a second-round draft pick, has played perhaps more than the Falcons had expected.
Alford has logged 48.8 percent of the defensive seasonal snaps.
On Monday, Smith cited youth as perhaps a reason why the Falcons fail to get off the field in situations like Sunday’s third-and-19.
Against the Pats, Falcons rookies accounted for 24.9 percent of the snaps on defense (Alford, Desmond Trufant, Joplo Bartu, Paul Worrilow and Malliciah Goodman).
"I think they were technique as well as awareness," Smith said of those long conversions. "Some of the long-yardage situations, we weren’t aware of where the sticks were and we weren’t deep enough in our drops. We’ve got some young guys that are out there playing. That's not an excuse. Those guys have been with us since April and we’ve prepared them to go out and play, but we were not nearly as good as we need to be on third down last night.
"You can’t give up those big long, third-down conversions to a good offense, especially Tom Brady, and allow him to get another set of downs.”
Samuel is a player known for his high football IQ. Last year, William Moore credited Samuel for fixing an incorrect call before the snap that resulted in an interception for the defense.
That kind of knowledge could have benefited the Falcons.
"I can’t speak to that," Smith said of the impact of not having Samuel on Sunday. "We should be aware of it. I think a lot of it has to do with experience and every time we go out there, some of these young guys are experiencing something for the first time.
"It's a learning opportunity. Sometimes it's a positive opportunity. Sometimes it’s a negative. Unfortunately for us last night in that situation it was a negative learning opportunity.
"And it's a fine line. I think if you look and see that play, the ball went about two inches over one of our defender’s hands. That’s how close it is in the NFL."
Bartu, an undrafted linebacker out of Texas State who is starting now for the injured Sean Weatherspoon, talked about that learning process.
"You learn something new every play, every practice," Bartu said. "You learn something new. You take it, you download it in your brain and you learn from it."
Trufant acknowledged the presence Samuel provides, but he also refused to use his absence as an excuse.
"It's definitely just having him out there is a help in general but we all have to be aware," Trufant said. "It can’t just be one person. We're accountable. We all have a job and we’re all aware. We just have to focus in when it’s time to focus in on things like that."
Clearly, some Falcons players are feeling pressure to perform. On Saturday, cornerback Robert McClain tweeted, "It is a must tomorrow night I play a lot better then [sic] I have been playing."
McClain said on Monday that a team effort in terms of communication could help situations like the third-and-19.
"We could better communicate with everybody, especially some guys inside," McClain said. "Just tell them third-and-long situations, ‘Sticks, sticks, sticks!' Get back because you know the quarterback is going to be trying to aim to get that first down. That’s something we definitely have to help everybody with, communication, knowing the situation at the time."
If they don’t fix it, it could be a long season.