NFL Team Report - Atlanta Falcons - INSIDE SLANT
With six games to play, the Atlanta Falcons are starting to take aim on turning things around for next season after being considered strong Super Bowl contenders just three months ago. At 2-8, they have been eliminated from repeating as NFC South champs and have only a remote chance to reach the postseason as a wild card team.
Reality has started to set in for the Falcons, who have posted five consecutive winning seasons and went to the playoffs in four of the past five seasons. Last season ended with them on the 10-yard line at the Georgia Dome against the San Francisco 49ers with a shot to go to the Super Bowl.
"We've been fortunate in the past to kind of have been in the mix, even the year we didn't go to the playoffs (we were) in the mix," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "When you're not (in the playoff mix), it stinks."
The Falcons have dropped seven of their past eight games and have been outscored by 74 points in the last four defeats. Over that stretch, Ryan's play has dipped as he has thrown nine interceptions.
"We have to play our best and hopefully in the future, we are not in this position again," Ryan said.
Ryan, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2008 draft, said he has been humbled by all of the losses. Before this season, he had never dropped three games in a row.
"(There are) times when it's going to be humbling and you've got to keep your head down and keep going," Ryan said.
Now, the Falcons, who have six games to play, are looking for positives wherever they can find them. They'll start shuffling their lineup.
Some of the experimentation started against Tampa Bay when they inserted Joe Hawley at center, shifted Peter Konz to right guard and benched Garrett Reynolds.
As the game got out of hand, undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder went in for Jeremy Trueblood at right tackle, strong safety Zeke Motta went in at free safety for Thomas DeCoud and little-used running back Antone Smith averaged 44 yards on two carries.
Also, backup quarterback Dominique Davis made his NFL debut, but didn't last long as he was knocked out of the game by a Tampa Bay defender. He played 12 snaps and completed 5 of 7 passes for 34 yards.
The Falcons signed veteran tackle Sean Locklear last week and he could be line for some action.
DeCoud, after going to the Pro Bowl last season as an alternate, has struggled in run support and in coverage. Last season, he had a career-high six interceptions. He doesn't have any this season.
"We wanted to get (Motta) in there and get him some snaps at the free safety position," coach Mike Smith said. "I thought he did a pretty good job. Again, it was his first time playing any significant play time the regular season."
With the Falcons having trouble running the football, Antone Smith has earned some more playing time.
"It's going to be imperative that we try to get (Antone) incorporated into our offense," Mike Smith said. "You saw his speed and his ability to make people miss. He's a guy who should (get) and deserves some touches (based on) what he did on Sunday afternoon."
Also, defensive tackle Travian Robertson may be in line for some more action. The team's top three defensive tackles, Corey Peters, Peria Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux, are all in the final year of their contracts.
"We have a limited number of players," Mike Smith said. "We have to evaluate that and we will. We also have to look at things schematically in what we are asking our players to do."
SERIES HISTORY: 89th regular-season meeting. The Falcons lead 46-42. The Saints won 23-17 on Sept. 8 when the Falcons' potential game winning drive stalled on the Saints' 3 yard-line with 43 seconds left to play. Saints coach Sean Payton has owned the Falcons, posting an 11-2 record against them - including a 7-2 record against Mike Smith. The Falcons won the last meeting in Atlanta, 23-13, when they intercepted Drew Brees five times on Nov. 29, 2012.
NFL Team Report - Atlanta Falcons - NOTES, QUOTES
Ex-Falcons linebacker Thomas Howard was one of two people killed in a fiery car crash in Oakland early Monday.
California Highway Patrol officials told media that witnesses said a black BMW driven by Howard was traveling on a highway at more than 100 mph when it collided with the rear of a semi-truck. The impact forced the BMW into the opposite lane and crash into a Honda CRV, witnesses told police.
Police said Howard, 30, and the driver of the Honda, Zeng Long Liu, 64, were killed at the scene.
Howard was signed to a free-agent contract by the Falcons on Oct. 22. He played in two games as a reserve before the Falcons released him Tuesday to clear a roster space for the return of Sean Weatherspoon from short-term injured reserve.
Weatherspoon said he and Howard shared the same agent, David L. Dunn.
"It's tough," Weatherspoon said. "He was just here. That's a guy I was close with. I met him a few years back at an event. I really enjoyed my friendship with him. My heart goes out to his family. I have them all in my prayers."
The Oakland Raiders selected Howard in the second round of the 2006 draft out of Texas-El Paso. He played five seasons for the Raiders and was with the Bengals from 2011 until suffering a season-ending knee injury during the first game of the 2012 season.
--Falcons free safety Thomas DeCoud, who went to the Pro Bowl last season, took to social media to vent his frustrations with the 2013 season to date.
Earlier in the season, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said DeCoud was in a slump and he was hopeful that he would pull out of it.
On his verified Twitter account, @twenty28 he wrote, "By no means am I sittin here acting like I'm balling' out there... but if you don't know those three things I state.. you really have no room talk..." and he linked to what appeared to be a journal entry through Instagram that read: "I understand that someone has to be the lightning rod for everyone's frustration ... but if you don't know the huddle call.... The rules of our defense... or our game plan...you have no clue what's goin' on out there... I don't care how much football you THINK you know...it's a lot more going on than you can fathom."
--The NFL on Monday suspended Tampa Bay safety Dashon Goldson for one game without pay for his helmet-to-helmet hit against Falcons wide receiver Roddy White during Sunday's game.
Goldson was penalized for unnecessary roughness on the play, which came in second quarter. White was deemed to be a defenseless receiver under league player-safety rules.
It was Goldson's third violation of the 2013 season. He also struck a defenseless player against the New York Jets and was initially suspended for another helmet-to-helmet hit in Week 2 against New Orleans before the penalty was reduced on appeal to a $100,000 fine.
White, informed of the Goldson suspension, said "that's terrible" for Goldson, whom he is acquainted with off the field. White said he didn't think Goldson intentionally hit him in the head.
"I guess it's just that he continues to be a repeat offender," White said. "That's a tough situation. I don't even think he really meant to do it. I reached back for the ball and kind of turned my body around right to him. If I don't reach back then he just hits me in the back."
--White said the league fined him $15,000 for twice slapping the helmet of Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman during Atlanta's 33-10 defeat to Seattle on Nov. 10.
--Falcons reserve running back Jason Snelling publicly apologized to his family, teammates, coaches and team owner Arthur Blank for his arrest on marijuana charges.
"I made a mistake," Snelling said in a statement to reporters Monday. "I'm very apologetic about it and I'm ready to move forward."
Snelling, 29, did not play in Sunday's 41-28 defeat at Tampa Bay. He said it was his decision to not join the team in Tampa Bay.
"I regret and (am) very sorry for not being there with my teammates and I hope they can forgive me for the situation that happened," he said.
The Barrow Journal, citing a Winder Police Department report, said police observed Snelling's vehicle unable to stay in its lane early Friday morning. An officer smelled marijuana in his vehicle and Snelling was booked into the Barrow County jail at 6:42 a.m., according to the Times.
BY THE NUMBERS:
29: Falcons' NFL rank in points given up per game, 29.2
6: Falcons' NFL rank in passing yards per game, 274.4
31: Falcons' NFL rank in rushing yards per game, 73.1
5: Combined touchdown passes thrown by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in past four games vs. Arizona, Carolina, Seattle and Tampa Bay.
88: Yards rushing by running back Jacquizz Rodgers on two carries against Tampa Bay.
35: Total points scored by the Falcons in the third quarter this season.
8: Falcons coach Mike Smith is 3-8 against the New Orleans Saints.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I absolutely do. They've earned it over the last five years. This is a tough business. We've had a lot of injuries and there have been a lot of issues on top of the injuries and that is pretty obvious. The guys are proven leaders, proven by success. Their records speak for themselves. They'll do the work that has to be done with my full support. We'll get back to what we have to do. Right now, we have six more games that we have to play this year and we plan on competing hard in those games, winning if not all, as many as we can." --Falcons owner Arthur Blank, giving his support to general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith.
NFL Team Report - Atlanta Falcons - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Falcons coach Mike Smith said backup running back Antone Smith, who rushed for 88 yards on two carries against the Bucs, is in line for a promotion.
After scoring on a 50-yard run, antone Smith didn't show much emotion after scoring because the Falcons were being routed, but he said it was satisfying.
"It felt good man because it's been a long time coming for me," Smith said. "I've been away from playing running back for some years now. To be out there and actually touch the rock, it felt really good. To do it in front of my family, it felt even better."
Smith is from Pahokee, Fla., which is about 175 miles by car from Tampa. Smith had just two carries in 43 games over four NFL seasons as he has made his living as a special-teams ace.
Smith didn't carry the ball Sunday until the Falcons were hopelessly behind. He still may not have gotten the ball if Jason Snelling hadn't stayed in Georgia in the aftermath of his arrest on a marijuana-possession charge.
--CB Desmond Trufant, a rookie, leads the team with 10 pass breakups, according to the coaches' film review stats.
--LB Paul Worrilow has posted 54 total tackles in the last two games after notching 21 total tackles in the first seven games. According to STATS, his back-to-back 19 tackle performances are tied for the best single-game total by any Falcon defender since 1994.
--TE Tony Gonzalez has caught 54 passes for 568 yards with four touchdowns this season, including a 12 reception, 146-yard performance against New England on Sept. 29. Gonzalez broke his own NFL record, posting his 16th straight season with at least 50 receptions. Gonzalez also joined wide receiver Jerry Rice (17) as the only two players in NFL history to post 16 seasons with 50-plus catches.
--WR Harry Douglas had an 80-yard catch-and-run touchdown against Tampa Bay. Douglas recorded his third 100-yard game of the season and his second consecutive 100-yard game against Tampa Bay catching six passes for 134 yards (22.3 yards per reception), including a career-long 80-yard touchdown. Douglas also recorded his third straight game against the Buccaneers with a touchdown catch. In 2013, Douglas has set career highs in receptions, yards, yards per reception and touchdowns notching 51 catches for 754 yards, 14.8 yards per catch, and two scores.
--DE Osi Umenyiora sacked Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon twice, giving him three games with multiple sacks this season. In his career, Umenyiora's teams are 12-6 when he posts two-plus sacks. He has posted 81.5 career sacks, including 5.5 sacks this season and ranks eighth in the NFL among active players in career sacks.
--RB Steven Jackson rushed for 41 yards on 11 carries against the Buccaneers.
--DT Peria Jerry (shoulder) was limited in practice last week, but played against Tampa Bay. He was limited in practice Tuesday.
--TE Tony Gonzalez (toe) didn't practice on Tuesday.
--DE Malliciah Goodman (calf) didn't practice on Tuesday.
--LB Sean Weatherspoon (foot) was limited in practice.
--DT Jonathan Babineaux (triceps) was limited in practice.
--QB Dominique Davis (knee) was limited in practice.
--S Zeke Motta (hand) was limited in practice.
--RB Jacquizz Rodgers (ankle) was limited in practice.
--RT Jeremy Trueblood (knee/hip) was limited in practice.
--LB Paul Worrilow (shoulder) was limited in practice.
GAME PLAN: Falcons coach Mike Smith said the team has to consider some scheme changes. One could be moving away from passing so much, because the Falcons have constant pass protection issues.
They tried to revamp the offensive line against Tampa Bay, and during the open portion of practice Joe Hawley appeared to be working as the No. 1 center and Garrett Reynolds was at right guard.
The offense has not been able to function because Ryan has been under relentless pressure. On 428 dropbacks, he has been pressured on 40.4 percent of the plays with 19 sacks, 59 quarterback hits and 95 hurries.
Running back Antone Smith is in line for more carries as the offense appears primed to shift more to the running game.
"That's something that Mike and (offensive coordinator) Dirk (Koetter) are going to work on," Ryan said. "I know that everybody. ... when things aren't going well, everybody looks at everything that we're doing in order to try and find ways to get that fixed. That's a coaching thing. Mike will handle that.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Falcons RB Steven Jackson, who rushed for season-high 77 yards in the last meeting, vs. Saints LB Curtis Lofton, a former Falcon: Jackson had a flashback early against Tampa Bay before the Falcons fell behind and had to abandon the run. He ripped off rushes of 15 and 7 yards on the Falcons' first two plays from scrimmage and appeared headed for his first big day with Atlanta. Lofton has been one of the mainstays for the Saints. The sure-tackling Lofton leads the team with 77 tackles, according to NFL.com stats. The Saints are giving up 114 yards a game, which ranks 17th in the league.
Falcons CB Asante Samuel, who didn't play in the first meeting, vs. Saints WR Marques Colston, who has 7,923 career receiving yards and has passed Eric Martin (7,854) for the franchise record: Robert McClain started at his left cornerback spot in the first meeting. Samuel has battled through a thigh injury. He has just one interception and three pass breakups as teams have targeted rookie right cornerback Desmond Trufant. Colston got loose for five catches for 68 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown reception in the previous meeting. He has a touchdown in three of the past four meetings with the Falcons.
Falcons LB Sean Weatherspoon, who will play his second game since coming back from a foot sprain suffered in Week 2 against St. Louis, vs. Saints RB Darren Sproles, who hurt the Falcons as a receiver in the last meeting: Weatherspoon appeared sluggish against the Bucs and missed several tackles. He finished with nine tackles. In the season opener, Sproles was kept in check running the ball as he had eight carries for 22 yards. He did his damage in the passing game with six catches for 88 yards, including a 32-yard gain.