NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, still recovering from an ankle injury, continued his usual routine of being limited to start the week during Wednesday's practice in London.

Jones' ankle typically is sore early in the week and fine by game time. It's been the same process since the Minnesota game in Week 4.

Also limited Wednesday were left guard Justin Blalock (back) and linebacker Prince Shembo (back). Wide receiver Harry Douglas (foot) and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (foot) were held out of practice. Babineaux was on the injury report with a knee injury last week but still played.

For Detroit, receiver Calvin Johnson was listed as limited coming off a sprained ankle, while offensive lineman LaAdrian Waddle's status has become a concern due to a concussion.
One would have figured Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White would feel a little bit more comfortable with his performance after an nine-catch, 100-yard, one-touchdown outing against Baltimore last week.

But that wasn't the case.

White, who said leading into the Ravens game he felt like he was letting down his teammates, remains down on his overall play. Although he surpassed Terance Mathis for the most touchdowns in franchise history (57), White was more concerned about the couple balls he dropped against the Ravens. He now has at least five drops going into Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions in London.

"Mentally, I feel like I'm in the game plan. Mentally, I feel prepared for the games. It's just ... I don't know what is is," White said. "I'm not finishing plays. I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do."

White refused to use injuries as an excuse, although he's dealt with knee, ankle and hamstring issues over the last two seasons. He doesn't bring up the age factor, either, although he turns 33 on Nov. 2.

"It's frustrating me," White said. "It's getting to the point where I'm doing everything I've been doing for the last nine years of playing football, but it's not real good for me right now. I don't know what it is. I'm trying to find out. I'll figure it out, though. I will figure it out."

White has 28 catches for 353 yards and three touchdowns through the first seven games. He missed one game due to a hamstring injury.

The Film Don't Lie: Falcons

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
A weekly look at what the Atlanta Falcons must fix:

As the Falcons prepare to face the league's top-ranked defense in the Detroit Lions Sunday in London, they know pressure will come at Matt Ryan from every direction.

Ryan was pressured on a season-high 32 percent of his dropbacks in this past Sunday's 29-7 loss to Baltimore, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It's no coincidence he was sacked a season-high five times. The pressure on his dropbacks has steadily climbed over the past five weeks (19 percent in Week 3, 23 percent in Week 4, 24 percent in Week 5, 29 percent in Week 6).

Surely the Lions picked up on the Falcons' inability to adjust to the variety of pressures the Ravens threw at them and how effective the Ravens were with stunts. The Lions ran some effective twists against Drew Brees and the Saints last week and also got after Brees with the blitz. And they got after Brees in the fourth quarter, putting him under duress on six of his 15 fourth-quarter dropbacks. Brees was 0-for-6 with an interception on those dropbacks.

Now against the Falcons, Ndamukong Suh and the Lions' front is sure to smell blood with a rookie set to start at center for the Falcons in James Stone. Suh and Nick Fairley will bring intense interior pressure, while team sack leader George Johnson and fast-rising Ezekiel Ansah -- the NFC's Defensive Player of the Week in Week 6 -- could give Falcons tackles Jake Matthews and Gabe Carimi fits on the edges.
A couple of games ago, Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith talked about how winning the NFC South would be the "cleanest" way for his team to make the playoffs despite a slow start.

Well, now the Falcons sit at 2-5 and are in the midst of a four-game losing streak as they prepare for Sunday's matchup with the Detroit Lions (5-2) in London. Optimism has all but faded, at least in the eyes of irate fans. And the division race isn't something Smith really wants to discuss anymore.

"This division is going to be a competitive division every single time. ... I'm not concerned about the Carolina Panthers, the New Orleans Saints, or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers," Smith said after Sunday's 29-7 loss at Baltimore. "We've got to focus on the Atlanta Falcons. And together, we will pull out of this."

The Falcons were 2-5 to start the 2013 season, then lost their next four and imploded to a 4-12 finish. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only four teams that have started the season 2-5 have gone on to make the playoffs since the playoffs expanded in 1990: the 2011 Broncos (8-8), the 2002 Jets (9-7), the 1995 Lions (10-6), and the 1990 New Orleans Saints (8-8). That Broncos team was quarterbacked by Tim Tebow, so maybe the Falcons truly do have hope.

Not to mention the sad state of the NFC South, which also gives the Falcons an outside chance to win the division title. There is no team currently above .500 in the division, with the Panthers leading the way at 3-3-1.

The Falcons have the best record in NFC South play at 2-0 with wins against the Saints and Buccaneers, but both of those games were at home. They have three consecutive division road games upcoming -- at Tampa Bay (Nov. 9), at Carolina (Nov. 16) and at New Orleans (Dec. 21) -- and they are 0-4 on the road this season.

Just how bad has the NFC South been this season? The Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints are a combined 8-17-1, including 2-12-1 on the road. The last time a division posted a road record that bad through seven weeks was 2010, when the NFC West went 2-12, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Based on combined opponents' records, the Falcons have the toughest remaining schedule (31-26-1) while the Panthers have the easiest (22-35). Only one team left on Carolina's schedule currently sits above .500, and that's the Philadelphia Eagles (5-1).

Falcons receiver Julio Jones was bold enough to say his team is good enough to finish 11-5. That doesn't seem realistic at this point, but you wonder whether an 8-8 Falcons team might actually have a shot. Then anything could happen once you make the postseason.

But where will the Falcons find wins the rest of the way? They have four road games remaining outside of Sunday's trip to London. They face the NFC West leading Cardinals (5-1) at home. And the Falcons travel to Green Bay (5-2) on Dec. 8, the exact same date they got buried in the snow at Lambeau Field last season without Aaron Rodgers in the Packers' lineup.

Taking care of business at home against the Browns, Cardinals, Steelers and Panthers would give the Falcons four more wins, but 6-10 isn't going to get it done. They likely have to go at least 6-3 the rest of the way and beat Carolina at least once over the next nine to have a legitimate shot, all while watching to see how the rest of the division unfolds.

"It's no different when we've been successful, too," quarterback Matt Ryan said of keeping an eye on the division standings. "You always kind of know where things shake out and where things stand. It is what it is.

"We're in the position that we're in. We know where everybody else is at. But I think [Coach] Smitty is right: At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what everybody else does. Ultimately, we've got to worry about and we've got to concern ourselves with what we've got to do to get better."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Roddy White didn't make any excuses. Instead, the veteran Atlanta Falcons wide receiver pointed the finger at himself.

White knows he hasn't been the same player so far this season. He hasn't gotten into a rhythm. He's had some uncharacteristic drops, including a key one in last Sunday's 27-13 loss to the Chicago Bears.

"I've gotten off to a really slow start," White said. "Not one of my favorable years that I'm having. But I've got to turn my game around for our team to start playing better. I'm a leader on this team, and I haven't been going out there and playing like Roddy White football. I've got to get back to just being myself -- go out there and just cut it loose -- and whatever happens, happens."

White enters Sunday's game against Baltimore with 19 catches in five games for an average of 3.8 receptions per game. Coming into the season, White had averaged 4.8 catches per game or better in every season since becoming a regular starter (2007), with his career low being that 4.8 average last season.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, White has three drops this season on 39 targets. Those three drops are tied for the fourth most in the league among wide receivers. And his 7.7 percent drop percentage is the 10th highest among 88 qualified wide receivers.

White did lead the league with 14 drops in 2011, but he also made the Pro Bowl that season while catching 100 passes.

Some might say his struggles are just a product of being an aging receiver, with White set to turn 33 next month. He has dealt with some injury issues, including having his left knee drained this offseason and not participating in minicamp. He also missed a Week 3 win over Tampa Bay due to a hamstring injury.

White, however, hasn't been on the injury report as of late, so he figured to get his timing back with quarterback Matt Ryan once he got back on a regular practice routine. That hasn't been the case.

"When you go out there and practice and execute plays and things come up that way in a game and you don't get it done, it's frustrating on your behalf because all my career I've made those plays," White said. "Right now, I'm just not making them. It's frustrating for me that I feel like I'm letting my team down in those circumstances. I've got to do a better job of just helping everybody else around the offense; just going out there and making the plays that they design for me to make."

White admitted he has been pressing and maybe looking too much for the big play.

"I've just been concentrating this week on just looking every ball in," White said. "That's been my primary focus, just going in there and just executing the plays that are called (and) don't worry about scoring touchdowns or trying to hit a home run or go out there and try to hit 80-yard plays. Just be who I am: go out there and catch balls and move the chains."

The Film Don't Lie: Falcons

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
A weekly look at what the Atlanta Falcons must fix:

As the Falcons prepare for Sunday's road matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, they have to fix their communication issues on defense.

Those issues were evident in a 27-13 loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday. On the two longest pass plays the Falcons surrendered -- a 74-yarder and a 47-yarder -- the defensive backs were spotted frantically trying to signal to each other before the snap. On the 74-yard connection between Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and Alshon Jeffery, the obvious confusion led to Jeffery being wide-open behind the defense.

Falcons coach Mike Smith refused to blame it on youth, although three second-year players are starting in the secondary. The Falcons no doubt sorely miss injured strong safety William Moore (shoulder), who is capable of communicating well and getting everybody on the same page. The Falcons also don't have injured linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles), another excellent communicator and vocal leader.

Even without Moore or Weatherspoon, the Falcons have to resolve the issue fast or else they might get torched for a few more big plays come Sunday. Baltimore receiver Steve Smith, formerly a Falcons nemesis with Carolina, has three touchdowns of 50-plus yards this season. That's as many as the 35-year-old caught in his last five seasons with the Panthers, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Teams are expected to have bumps and bruises six games into the season, and it's no different for the Atlanta Falcons.

Several players continue to gut through injuries in preparation for Sunday's game at Baltimore. The most notable are receiver Julio Jones and rookie left tackle Jake Matthews.

Jones was spotted slowly dragging his left foot as he exited the locker room on Monday afternoon. His left ankle has given him issues ever since the Minnesota game, and it is typically rather painful for him to deal with early in the week. Jones has shown up on the injury report as "limited" in practice the past few weeks due to his ankle, but is hasn't kept him out of any game action. In fact, he played 51 of 56 offensive snaps in Sunday's 27-13 loss to the Chicago Bears. And Jones continues to display his speed and explosion despite the ankle.

Fortunately for Jones, it is not the same right foot he had surgically repaired twice. He simply continues to get treatment on the ankle. And he actually moved around better Monday night as he attended teammate Harry Douglas' charity bowling event for The Douglas Brothers Foundation.

As for Matthews, he suffered a left high ankle sprain in the season opener against New Orleans and missed just one game. Matthews said he tweaked the ankle again during a Week 5 loss to the New York Giants.

It obviously has affected his play. Matthews had a tough time against Jason Pierre-Paul in New York, then gave up two sacks against the Bears as the offensive line, as a whole, wore down and struggled to protect Matt Ryan.

"Jake has done a very good job of dealing with that ankle all through this season," coach Mike Smith said. "I'm not going to say that it's affecting his play. I think that he's toughing it out in practice and in the games."

Also, rookie linebacker Prince Shembo did not play any defensive snaps against Chicago due to a knee injury. Shembo did play 12 snaps on special teams, but it wasn't the same stress he would have put on the knee had he played defense.

"Prince Shembo was limited in practice early in the week," Smith said. "Did not practice very much. And we felt like [Joplo] Bartu had taken the majority of the reps. And the way that Shembo was moving around, we thought it was in our best interest for [Bartu] to play in the game."

The Falcons need to get their receivers fully healthy. Besides Jones, Douglas remains sidelined with a deep bruise in his left foot with no timetable given for his return. Drew Davis, who had preseason foot surgery, was back on the field catching passes last week and is eligible to return to practice this week off the physically unable to perform list. But Smith wouldn't reveal Davis' status just yet. And Devin Hester had been dealing with a hamstring issue, although he played 29 of 56 offensive snaps and 11 special teams snaps against the Bears.
videoATLANTA -- For a team so reliant on offensive momentum, the last thing the Atlanta Falcons needed was a malfunction on that side of the ball -- something like a dropped pass or two.

Or five.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Falcons dropped five Matt Ryan passes Sunday during a 27-13 loss to the Chicago Bears. Second-year tight end Levine Toilolo had three, and Roddy White and Julio Jones each had one.

Entering the game, the Falcons had four drops all season.

"It doesn't concern me that it's a veteran player or a young player; we've got to complete balls," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "We've got to make the plays when the plays are presented to us. And we had some opportunities today, and we did not get that done."

We've seen what the Falcons are capable of when they have a good offensive rhythm. It was evident in the season opener, when they scored 37 points and racked up 568 total yards in a overtime win over New Orleans. It was obvious in a Week 3 win over Tampa Bay, when the Falcons scored 56 points and amassed 488 total yards.

But Sunday, against a Bears team knew they would have to outscore based on their untrustworthy defense, the Falcons stumbled from the outset and managed just 287 total yards. They converted just 4-of-13 on third down. They managed just 42 rushing yards on 13 carries. And Ryan was sacked a season-high four times.

The offense would have flowed a lot more smoothly had it not been for those drops.

"It's tough when those things happen multiple times in one game," said Ryan, who completed 19 of 37 passes for 271 yards with one touchdown and one interception. "I've made plenty of poor throws myself. You have got to shake those off and move past them. You have to go back out there and make the play next time it presents itself."

White's drop came in the second quarter with the Falcons trailing 10-3. Ryan found him deep down the field, but White dropped the ball before taking what appeared to be a helmet-to-helmet hit from Bears safety Ryan Mundy. No penalty was called on Mundy, and the drive stalled.

White was not available to the media after the game. Neither was Jones.

Toilolo, however, took full responsibility for his blunders.

"Got to fix them in practice," Toilolo said. "All these plays, I've made before. When they come to me, I've got to make them. Sometimes, I'll trying to do a little too much. I'm turning my eyes down the field before I tuck the ball. Yeah, I think for, it's a mindset, confidence. All those catches are catches I've made a thousand times.

"I think a couple of those would have been first downs. On all the drives I had drops, we ended up punting or turning the ball over. That hurts our rhythm and our flow of the offense. That's something that we can't have."

Especially when the offense is expected to carry the team.
ATLANTA -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Atlanta Falcons' 27-13 loss to the Chicago Bears:

Devin Hester didn't show much emotion as he addressed the media at his locker despite all the hype about him facing his old team Sunday. Hester did share a few moments with his ex-teammates prior to kickoff and after the game, specifically Tim Jennings, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Matt Forte. "I just told them congrats on the win and keep it up," Hester said. "I just said good luck the rest of the season and stay healthy." Hester mentioned that Jay Cutler said "What's up, Dev?" during pregame warm-ups. Hester acknowledged Cutler back with a head nod.

Moving on: Outside linebacker/defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi, who had a sack in the game, made an interesting statement about the defense before exiting the building. "There ain't nothing wrong with us," he said. "Hey, give [the Bears] their due. They made plays tonight. We weren't able to overcome that. All we have to do is move forward and get ready for the Baltimore Ravens." Easier said than done.

No pain relief: Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff sought an Advil as he stood in one corner of the locker room after the game. It's easy to understand why he probably had a headache after watching his team drop three straight. And there doesn't seem to be much relief in sight, particularly with four straight games upcoming away from the Georgia Dome.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Before the season, much was made about which receiver duo was better between the Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones and Roddy White and the Chicago Bears' Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.

Both pairs will be on display Sunday as the Falcons and Bears battle at the Georgia Dome. From Jones' perspective, none of that preseason chatter matters now.

Jones was asked what he admired most about Marshall and Jeffery as a tandem.

"I don't watch them at all," Jones said. "I don't know. I never watch them. Everybody's always comparing me and Roddy to them and a lot of other duos in the league. But I don't really watch other receivers at all. I just try to focus on my game and trying to get better as a player."

Going into Sunday's game, Jones and White have combined for 56 catches for 765 yards and five touchdowns, with Jones leading the league with 40 catches and 552 receiving yards. Jones has been relatively healthy coming off foot surgery, outside of a minor ankle injury. White missed one game with a hamstring injury.

Marshall and Jeffery have a combined 45 catches for 547 yards and seven touchdowns, and Marshall is tied for third in the league with five touchdown catches. Both players have been hampered by injuries, particularly Marshall (ankle). And the Bears duo's statistics are somewhat affected by running back Matt Forte, who leads the team in receptions (36 catches for 299 yards and one touchdown) and a pass-catching tight end in Martellus Bennett (32 catches, 312 yards, four touchdowns).

Like Jones, White downplayed the battle of duos.

"We can worry about them, but they're not on the field when we're on the field," White said. "We've got to go out there and execute, do our part, and help our team win on the offensive side of the ball. And just be more consistent.

"Brandon Marshall's a really good friend of mine. We're really cool. We've been that way since he's been in the NFL. I met him a long time ago and we kind of jelled off of that. I always look at him and see what he's doing, how he's holding up throughout the season. He's a real good player."

There’s no doubt the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones is the fastest and best deep threat among the four receivers. Marshall, at 6-4 and 230 pounds, is the tallest and most physical.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith expressed no regret about going for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 29-yard line with just under five minutes remaining in Sunday's 30-20 loss to the New York Giants.

The Falcons had three timeouts and trailed by a touchdown at 27-20, but obviously did not trust the defense to hold up. A pass play was called out of the shotgun, and quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked for a 9-yard loss as left guard Harland Gunn -- one of three new starters along the offensive line -- gave up pressure to Giants defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins.

"We had talked all through the week that if that came up in the ballgame that we would go for it," Smith said. "Felt like we had a good play. We didn't execute it. To me, it was a very makeable fourth down.

"In this position, you make decisions and you can't have regrets. You make those decisions and those are the decisions that you think are the best for you and your football team to win the ballgame. And that was the thing that I felt like was going to give us the best opportunity to win the game. We needed to convert and go down and score a touchdown."

Antone Smith was the lone running back in the game and was used to block on the play. Power back Steven Jackson was on the sideline. Julio Jones was the lone receiver out wide right, and Roddy White, Devin Hester and Levine Toilolo were bunched on the left side as Hester came in motion to move into the slot. White indicated the play was intended for Hester, as Toilolo appeared to set a pick. But Ryan had no time to really deliver the ball as Hankins brought the pressure up the middle and got the sack.

"Yeah, I mean, I thought we had an opportunity to convert; still in the game at that point," Ryan said. "And you know, it just didn't work out. Obviously we didn't get the job done collectively. Disappointing. Felt like we had a chance to get it done and just came up short."

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A few thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 30-20 loss to the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium.

What it means: The Falcons (2-3) have lost five in a row on the road and have dropped consecutive games since that 56-14 trouncing of Tampa Bay in Week 3. With four of the next five away from the Georgia Dome, the Falcons have to figure out a way to rally and at least stay on track in the NFC South race. They are 2-0 in the division.

Stock watch: The coaches have to absorb some of the blame for this one after a missed fourth-and-1 play from the Falcons' own 29 late in the game. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter went with a pass play with 4 minutes, 40 seconds left in regulation and the Falcons trailing 27-20. Quarterback Matt Ryan didn't have time to fire off a quick throw and was sacked for a 9-yard loss as new starting left guard Harland Gunn was beaten. Some might wonder why the Falcons just didn't punt the ball with three timeouts left, but coach Mike Smith obviously didn't trust his defense. Matt Bosher also didn't have a great day punting.

Lack of pass rush continues to hurt Falcons: Designated pass-rusher Osi Umenyiora had a sack early. But other than that, the Falcons failed miserably in terms of getting to Eli Manning. The lack of a pass rush put more pressure on the defensive backs and hurt their play. Cornerback Robert Alford definitely made some mistakes, particularly when matched up against Giants rookie Odell Beckham Jr. But Alford would have been helped by a better pass rush. The Falcons still have way too many issues in terms of stopping the run and getting to the quarterback.

Game ball: Antone Smith deserves more touches, period. Smith scored on a 74-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter, his fourth touchdown of the season in limited action. Smith has averaged 53.5 yards on those touchdowns. It's too bad he was pretty much the offense in the second half as the Falcons struggled to get anything substantial going. Maybe they needed to use Smith more on third down, where they struggled miserably.

What’s next: The Falcons return home to face the Chicago Bears next Sunday in a game that will mark Devin Hester's first matchup against his former team. It also will be an interesting battle of receivers with Julio Jones and Roddy White vs. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons are down two more players with starting left guard Justin Blalock and receiver Harry Douglas ruled out for Sunday's game against the New York Giants because of injuries.

Blalock continues to recover from a back injury, and Douglas has a lingering left foot issue. Neither player practiced this week.

Blalock had played in 102 consecutive games.

The Falcons started the week by putting starting center Joe Hawley (ACL) and starting right tackle Lamar Holmes (foot) on season-ending injured reserve. The loss of Blalock means three new starters will be in the lineup: center Peter Konz, right tackle Gabe Carimi and left guard Harland Gunn.

The Falcons lost starting left tackle Sam Baker to a knee injury in the preseason, forcing rookie Jake Matthews to move from right tackle to left.

The sudden changes along the line will create quite a challenge for Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice.

"We have to groom the next wave of guys," Tice said. "But the guys that we have active this week -- the seven and including [Blalock] -- we have eight guys that can play winning football in the National Football League."

Douglas will miss his second consecutive game, which likely means more touches for Devin Hester at receiver.

Hester (ankle), fellow receiver Julio Jones (ankle), safety Kemal Ishmael (ankle) and linebacker Prince Shembo (knee) are all listed as probable, coming off injuries. All four had full participation in Friday's practice.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- As he reflected on last week's loss at Minnesota, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan admitted there were two throws he wanted back.

"We had an opportunity on a deep out route to Julio [Jones], I think, at the beginning of the fourth that I felt like was a play that I needed to make,'' Ryan said. ``That's one of those things, they came up. We didn't hit it. Felt like it was at a time when you would want to get it done. That was specifically one.

``The other one, not quite as much.''

Ryan declined to reveal the other throw. Regardless, he won't dwell on those plays as he prepares for another tough trip to face the New York Giants. Precision will be key behind a rebuilt offensive line following the losses of starters Joe Hawley and Lamar Holmes. The Falcons lost starting left tackle Sam Baker in the preseason. And left guard Justin Blalock's status is unclear coming off a back injury.

``It's tough,'' Ryan said of the injuries. ``Any time you have guys go down, it makes it difficult. You hate seeing it. I feel bad for those guys because they put too much effort into getting themselves ready. They were playing well. But that's a part of the deal. Part of this league is, you're going to have to overcome injuries. You have to have guys step up. Roles are constantly changing.''

As long as the quarterback position doesn't change, the Falcons should survive. Players such as Gabe Carimi, Peter Konz, Ryan Schraeder and Harland Gunn have to hold their own and protect Ryan regardless of what line combination is out on the field. Rookie left tackle Jake Matthews will have a tough task Sunday against Giants pass-rusher Jason-Pierre Paul, while fellow defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka also is capable.

Ryan has to be in sync with his receivers, particularly on the road. As ESPN Stats and Information pointed out, he has a 57.6 completion percentage, an average of 6.2 yards per attempt, four touchdowns, five interceptions and a total QBR of 44.0 in the two road games this season. At home, his completion percentage is 77.6 with an average of 11.0 yards per attempt, six touchdowns, no interceptions and a QBR of 96.1.

If Ryan finds his road groove -- and the line holds up -- maybe the Falcons will extend their regular-season winning streak against NFC East opponents to seven, which would remain as the longest active such streak.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- With Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith giving Mike Nolan a vote of confidence as the defensive coordinator, it's up to Nolan to help orchestrate defensive improvement.

But the onus really falls on the players to execute. So far, that's something they have been unable to do consistently in surrendering 429.8 yards and 28.3 points per game. It certainly doesn't help matters when you don't have an elite pass-rusher, a veteran inside linebacker or ball hawking defensive backs -- although cornerback Desmond Trufant will be among the league's elite sooner than later.

The players trust in Nolan and the scheme and know they need to play better.

"Mike Nolan is a guy who really knows his football," outside linebacker Kroy Biermann said. "His defense is structured that way. And the way he coaches is a way that can create success for a lot of guys on the field at a lot of different positions. As a player -- and me included -- you've got to know that everybody's doing their job. You've got to trust that. And you've got to turn things loose and fix what we've been doing wrong."

Asked if he felt the players were letting Nolan down, linebacker Paul Worrilow responded "yes" without hesitation.

"Coach Nolan can call whatever he wants. We've got to be able to go out there and execute," Worrilow said. "He's putting us in positions where we go out there and we can put ourselves in a good chance to win. To put together a good four quarters of defense, it's up to the players to go out there and do that. ... It's always about the players."

But can the players get things corrected before it's too late? The Falcons will be challenged even more with strong safety and defensive leader William Moore out at least the next eight weeks with a shoulder injury. The secondary now will include three second-year players in Trufant, cornerback Robert Alford and new starting strong safety Kemal Ishmael. Worrilow, in his second year, is working alongside rookie inside linebacker Prince Shembo. The defensive line has veterans, but none of them have been outstanding through four games, save for Corey Peters against Tampa Bay.

"I think we've got a great group of guys in there that want to win, want to do it right," Biermann said. "Guys aren't out there doing their own thing. It's just small things here and there, breakdowns. And those small things in the NFL lead to big losses and big performances by the guys going against you.

"I'm disappointed in myself. I've let myself down. And I think every man in the room would say that. When you're not letting yourself down, you're not going to be letting the guy next to you down. You've got to self-assess where you're at first. Then if there are a few guys here and there who are not picking stuff up, then that's when you've got to help them and bring them up and along."