Falcons can't drop the ball anymore

September, 30, 2013
9/30/13
2:55
AM ET
Roddy WhiteAP Photo/David GoldmanRoddy White and the Falcons scored only once in the red zone against the Patriots.
As Tony Gonzalez held court in front of his locker Sunday, the last thing on his mind was relishing his career night.

The Atlanta Falcons veteran would have traded all 149 of his receiving yards for a win. Instead, Gonzalez and his offensive mates were left to wonder what could have been had they scored touchdowns in the red zone -- and had the defense not given up a handful of big plays in a 30-23 loss to the undefeated New England Patriots.

A week after head coach Mike Smith repeatedly preached about the need to be more effective in the red zone, the Falcons responded with a 1-for-6 showing inside the 20. Those six trips inside the 20 were the most in a game by any NFL team this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Gonzalez could not hold back his frustration while reflecting on those numbers.

"We've got to be able to put up points, and we should," Gonzalez said. "We have the players and we have the system to get it done. We've done it before in the past. It's just right now we're not clicking, for some reason, throughout the whole game.

"We start out good. But, for whatever reason, in the second half … and it's all of us, collectively. It's no one person that we're going to point the finger at anybody. But I'll tell you what: It's got to get figured out."

It is hard to figure how a team touted as a Super Bowl contender suddenly fell to 1-3. History says the odds are stacked heavily against the Falcons now. According ESPN Stats & Information, only 9 percent of teams that start a season 1-3 have gone on to make the playoffs since 1990. In order to beat those odds, the Falcons have to figure out a way to score touchdowns -- immediately. Atlanta leads the league with 18 red zone drives this season but is fifth worst in touchdown conversion (38.9) on such drives, according to Stats & Information.

During a pregame interview with a local radio station, quarterback Matt Ryan talked about possibly needing to score 35 to 40 points to defeat the Patriots. His words turned out to be prophetic. And the Falcons might have reached those numbers had it not been for their red zone blunders.

"Not our best effort in the red zone tonight," said Ryan, who passed for a career-high 421 yards while completing 34 of 54 passes. "We had chances. We really did. We just didn't make plays."

Those red-zone issues were evident from the start. The Falcons had first-and-goal from the Patriots' 5-yard line on their initial drive yet could not punch it in as Ryan threw incompletions on second and third downs. The Falcons settled for Matt Bryant's 23-yard field goal.

In the second quarter, the Falcons went for it on fourth-and-2 from the Patriots' 7-yard line. Ryan rolled out and sailed a pass too high for an open Roddy White.

"It was a bad throw," Ryan admitted. "Roddy ran a good route, and I made a poor throw."

White also was Ryan's target on the Falcons' final drive of the game, when the Patriots double-covered Gonzalez on fourth-and-7 from the Patriots' 10.

The Falcons had a chance to complete a dramatic comeback from a 17-point deficit and force overtime. Instead, Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib played tough man-to-man defense on White, forcing the incompletion.

"Bang-bang play. We just didn't make it," Ryan said. "We didn't make the play when we needed to. I've got to try and give him a better opportunity to make a play on that ball."

Ryan accepted plenty of the blame, but there was enough to spread around. The running game tandem of Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling was ineffective, although Rodgers had some success with screens. The offensive line allowed too much pressure on Ryan during key stages of the game. And rookie tight end Levine Toilolo dropped what appeared to be a sure touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

"Anytime you have an opportunity to make a play, you've got to make it," Toilolo said. "I know it takes a great deal of respect for the team to trust me, for Matt to trust me. Bottom line is I didn't make the play. That's something I have to do."

The Falcons obviously cannot afford to drop the ball too many more times this season. They already have fallen behind the NFC South rival New Orleans Saints, who take a 3-0 record into Monday night's showdown with the undefeated Miami Dolphins. Still left on the schedule are games against the mighty Seattle Seahawks, the dangerous San Francisco 49ers, and the Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay Packers. Not to mention the all-important rematch with New Orleans on Nov. 21.

There are so many aspects the Falcons need to fix.

Defensively, they cannot keep surrendering big plays. The Falcons gave up three plays of 40-plus yards, including a 47-yard touchdown run by Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount. That play was preceded by an unacceptable Tom Brady 26-yard hookup with Kenbrell Thompkins on third-and-19. William Moore added to the misery by picking up a 15-yard hit-to-head penalty against Thompkins.

The Falcons also need to get healthier. Getting White fully recovered from a nagging high-ankle sprain and getting Steven Jackson back from a hamstring injury could help solve some of the red zone woes. And being banged up at linebacker is not helping the defense stop the run.

More than anything, the Falcons cannot afford to lose confidence despite the dismal start.

"We've got a great football team here,'' said receiver Julio Jones, who posted his third-straight 100-yard receiving game. "Everybody just has to keep practicing and just don't give up on the season.''

Salvaging it will not be an easy task.

Vaughn McClure

ESPN Atlanta Falcons reporter

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