Running game critical for Falcons

BY foxsports • September 21, 2012

More than once in the second half of Atlanta's 27-21 victory over Denver on Monday night, Falcons right tackle Tyson Clabo found himself on the ground at the end of a play and had trouble standing up again.

Entering the Broncos game, Clabo, a Pro Bowler in 2010 and 2011, was listed as questionable with a hip injury. With a short week facing the Falcons and having departed on Friday afternoon to travel to San Diego for Sunday's game, Clabo had less time to recuperate this week. He plays a position at which the Falcons are dangerously thin since reserve Will Svitek, a starter for the second half of 2011 on the left side, was lost for the season during training camp because of a torn triceps muscle.

The Falcons again listed Clabo as questionable when they released their injury report on Friday Clabo did practice all week, though he was limited.

"Yeah, I had some issues out there," Clabo said. "It was OK, you know, for most of the game and then it just kind of got out of control, but we have a great training staff here. It's one of those things you just have to deal with."

As the Falcons attempt to get their running game in gear – a phase that came under great scrutiny this week because of running back Michael's Turner's struggles on the field and arrest off it – they will need Clabo to be at his best against the Chargers. Their ability to run the ball and defend the run will be critical against San Diego. Last week against Denver, the Falcons' backup at both left and right tackle was Mike Johnson, a converted guard who has never played tackle in an NFL game. Third-round draft pick Lamar Holmes, a natural tackle, was inactive last week.

More so than any of the opponents the Falcons have faced so far this season, the Chargers (2-0) will attempt to control the ball. In its 38-10 win over Tennessee last week, San Diego held the ball for 43 minutes, allowing its defense on the field for only 40 snaps. Especially with the Falcons' offense tied for second in the NFL at 33.5 points per game, the Chargers will try to limit Atlanta's possessions and plays on offense.

Falcons head coach Mike Smith said that Chargers coach Norv Turner has a "run-first mentality." The Chargers likely will get starting running back Ryan Mathews back this week after Mathews missed the season's first two games with a clavicle injury. Mathews, who averaged 4.9 yards per carry last season in 14 games, was listed as a full participant on both Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, the Chargers listed his status as "questionable" for the game.

Turner "believes in running the football," Smith said. "Any place he's been as a head coach and coordinator, it's based on running the football and then taking some shots down the field."

Smith might have been recalling Turner's days with Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin as offensive coordinator on Super Bowl-winning teams in Dallas in the early ‘90s. Over time, Turner has refused to give into the current trend of using the no-huddle offense, instead preferring to win the time of possession battle in old-school style.

"It might've been best for our offense," Turner said in a conference call with Atlanta media earlier this week of the no-huddle, "but it wasn't best for our team and our defense."

To that end, the Falcons will have to improve their own run defense. They rank 25th in the NFL, allowing an average of 135 yards in their two games. Last year, the Falcons finished sixth in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing less than 100 yards per game but that was with a different defensive coordinator and with Curtis Lofton at middle linebacker.

Part of the reason for the change is scheme. Over the first two games, Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has played an overwhelming amount of nickel (five defensive backs, two linebackers) instead of base defense (three linebackers, four defensive backs).

Expect that to change against San Diego and for second-year middle linebacker Akeem Dent to get a lot more snaps.

"I guess it's a little bit tougher, but that's just something we have to do better," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said of defending the run out of the nickel package. "… This week we'll be a little bit more base."

They might need to if they don't want to be on the field all day.

Notes: The Falcons ruled out Chris Owens (head) for Sunday. Owens was the starter at nickel back, meaning Dominique Franks, cut when the Falcons got down to their 53-man roster but re-signed days later when they need a punt returner, will likely occupy that spot. The Falcons also ruled out running back Antone Smith (hamstring). Clabo and Weatherspoon (thigh) are questionable. Wide receivers Julio Jones (thigh), Roddy White (knee), defensive end John Abraham (knee) and linebacker Stephen Nicholas (thigh) were all listed as probable.