Nobody was more disappointed with Atlanta’s performance this past weekend against Arizona than Matt Ryan, who threw five picks — but somehow still won.
WHO: Falcons (9-1) at Bucs (6-4).
WHAT: NFC South showdown between Top 2 teams.
WHEN: 1 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Tampa, Fla.
LINE: Atlanta by 1.
ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons are tied for the best record in the NFL. They have a comfortable lead in their division. They’ve already clinched another winning season.
Nothing much to complain about, right?
For a team that has built such a lofty mark, the NFC-leading Falcons (9-1) had plenty of high-profile issues to deal with Monday coming off an ugly win over Arizona. Like a feeble running game, a defense that keeps giving up big running plays, injuries to Asante Samuel and Julio Jones, plus a four-game suspension for backup center Joe Hawley.
Then there was Matt Ryan’s career-high five interceptions, though Falcons fans hope that was just an aberration rather than another cause for concern.
“We’re very, very fortunate,” coach Mike Smith acknowledged. “You’ve just got to keep fighting. It’s amazing. The NFL is so close.”
The league announced Hawley’s penalty after he tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance, yet another distraction for a team that must address its trouble spots to avoid a repeat of the one-and-done playoff troubles of recent years.
Even so, Smith focused on the positive side of winning a game that was closer than expected.
“We’re very resilient,” he said. “There was never any doubt in anyone’s minds that we would not get the result we wanted if we just kept working at it.”
The Falcons will continue to work on running the ball, a strong point in years past but now the most obvious weakness.
The Falcons worked on it a lot in practice last week after a dismal performance at New Orleans, but there wasn’t significant improvement against the Cardinals.
Michael Turner carried 15 times for 46 yards and was booed several times by the home crowd. Change-of-pace back Jacquizz Rodgers was held to 16 yards on five carries. Jason Snelling was thrown for a 1-yard loss on his only handoff, when the Falcons merely needed about a foot on a third-down play in the third quarter.
Overall, the Falcons managed just 58 yards on the ground, dropping their season average to 89.2 per game as they rapidly sink toward the bottom of the league rankings. They are down more than 25 yards a game from last year’s average.
There were some encouraging signs in the fourth quarter.
With Atlanta trailing 19-16, Ryan guided the offense down the field through the air, setting up first-and-goal at the Arizona 1. Those sort of short-yardage situations have given the Falcons all sorts of problems, but Turner rumbled into the end zone standing for the winning score with 6:40 remaining.
“You’ve got get back on the horse when you’re thrown off it,” Smith said.
Then, after the Cardinals were stopped on downs, the Falcons managed to run out the final 3:06 to preserve the 23-19 victory. Turner took a sweep around right end for 7 yards and Rodgers converted on third-and-2, speeding around left end for a 6-yard gain that finished off Arizona.
“Being able to run the ball on that last drive to run out the clock was huge,” Ryan said.
The Cardinals, who benched quarter John Skelton in the second quarter and went with rookie Ryan Lindley, are an abysmal offensive team. They managed just 178 yards and scored 13 points off Ryan’s turnovers. Even so, the Atlanta defense gave up two long runs to LaRod Stephens-Howling, who broke off gains of 52 and 40 yards, setting up a couple of field goals.
“Both of those plays, we missed a tackle,” Smith said. “We’ve just got to get better at cleaning up some things in our run defense.”
If Atlanta had been facing a more prolific offense — in other words, just about anybody else in the NFL — those plays could have changed the outcome. Reducing those breakdowns will be a key on Sunday, when the Falcons travel to Tampa Bay to face the streaking Buccaneers and rookie sensation Doug Martin, who already has rushed for 1,000 yards.
“Their rookie running back has had some really explosive games,” Smith said. “It will be a challenge for us.”
The defense clearly misses linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who sat out his third straight game with an ankle injury. He’s not the only player hurting, either.
Samuel, the team’s best coverage player, went out in the first half with an injured right shoulder after delivering a hit to Larry Fitzgerald. Jones, who pairs with Roddy White to give Atlanta one of the league’s most dangerous receiver tandems, hobbled off in the second half after reinjuring his ailing right ankle. Defensive tackle Peria Jerry (thigh injury) also came out.
Smith never discusses the specifics of injuries on Monday, but he doesn’t think any of those three will miss significant time. Also, he is confident that Weatherspoon will be back at practice this week, giving him a good chance to play against Tampa Bay (6-4), which has won five of six to climb into playoff contention.
Even Smith made a big mistake against the Cardinals, mistakenly throwing his challenge flag on an Atlanta fumble that would’ve been subject to review anyway. Under the rules, he was assessed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and the play was not reviewed, costing the Falcons a chance to get the ball back.
“That’s totally on me,” Smith said.
Ryan was feeling the same way about his performance.
He became the first quarterback since Bart Starr in 1967 to win a game while throwing five interceptions and no touchdowns, though Ryan was quick to note “that’s good company to be in.” He had never thrown more than three picks in a game, and his quarterback rating of 40.5 was the second-lowest of his career, surpassed only by his second game as a pro in 2008.
“As a quarterback, you don’t want to ever have those kind of games. But they happen,” Ryan said. “It’s how you respond to it. I think it says a lot about our football team. I made the mistakes I did, but I’m surrounded by 52 other guys who show up and make plays. I’m fortunate to have those guys around me.”
FALCONS OL SUSPENDED FOR PEDS, GUNN SIGNED: The Falcons announced the signing Tuesday of offensive guard Harland Gunn after backup lineman Joe Hawley received a four-game suspension for violating NFL rules on performance-enhancing substances.
The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Gunn will play at Tampa Bay on Sunday.
He initially signed with Dallas as a college free agent after the NFL draft. Gunn was waived by the Cowboys and joined the New Orleans Saints practice squad. He played collegiately at Miami.
BURRESS SIGNS WITH STEELERS --- AGAIN: Plaxico Burress is back where he once belonged.
The Pittsburgh Steelers brought back the veteran wide receiver on Tuesday to provide depth at a position decimated by injuries while hoping there’s enough gas left in the 35-year-old’s tank to give the offense an added dimension near the goal line.
Burress impressed Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert during a brief workout early Tuesday even though he hasn’t played since the end of the 2011 season as a member of the New York Jets.
“He’s in really good physical condition based on the workout I just saw,” Tomlin said. “He’s got very good body control for a big man. He can drop his weight at break points and obviously he’s no stranger to football.”
The Steelers (6-4) are in need of healthy bodies at wide receiver after Jerricho Cotchery fractured his ribs late in Sunday night’s 13-10 loss to Baltimore. Antonio Brown has missed the last two games due to an ankle injury and Tomlin listed Brown as questionable for Sunday’s game against Cleveland (2-8).
The 6-foot-5 Burress spent his first five seasons in the NFL with the Steelers, who selected him with the eighth overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft. He moved on to the New York Giants in 2005 and caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the 2008 Super Bowl before his career derailed after accidentally shooting himself in a New York nightclub, leading to a gun charge that resulted in a 20-month prison sentence.
Pittsburgh courted Burress when he returned to the league last summer, though Burress opted for a more lucrative $3 million offer from the New York Jets. Though he lacked the explosion that made him one of the better deep threats in the league during his prime, Burress caught 45 passes for 612 yards and tied for the team lead with eight touchdown receptions.
The Jets opted not to bring him back, however, and Burress has spent most of the last year looking for a job. He’s finally got one on a team trying to keep its playoff chances afloat without injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is nursing a sprained right shoulder and a dislocated first rib.
Roethlisberger underwent additional testing on Tuesday, with encouraging results, though he will almost certainly miss his second straight start. Second stringer Byron Leftwich is also out after fracturing his ribs against the Ravens.
Enter Charlie Batch.
The seemingly ageless 37-year-old will fill in yet again on Sunday. Batch is 5-2 while subbing for Roethlisberger over the last decade, including a tidy 208-yard performance in a 27-0 victory over St. Louis last December.
The Steelers signed former New England Patriots quarterback Brian Hoyer as insurance. Hoyer spent three seasons backing up Tom Brady with the Patriots before being released at the end of training camp in August.
Batch lacks Roethlisberger’s mobility or Leftwich’s big-time arm, but his quick release should fit in well with offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s short passing game. Tomlin doesn’t expect Haley to give the playbook an overhaul to accommodate Batch.
“The changes will be subtle and they will be made with an emphasis geared toward maximizing his strengths and minimizing his weaknesses,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got a great deal of confidence in Charlie.”
Maybe it’s because Batch — and the Steelers — have been here before.
When Roethlisberger was suspended by the NFL for the first four games of the 2010 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, Batch stepped in and led Pittsburgh to a pair of victories after original substitute Dennis Dixon went down with a knee injury. He did the same last year against the Rams after Roethlisberger opted to rest a busted ankle.
“One thing I can say about this quarterback situation is, as uncomfortable as it may be, it’s not something we’re foreign too,” Tomlin said. “(The backups) do a great job of rallying and answering the bell.”
It’s something the Steelers believe Burress can do. If Brown can’t play, Burress’ workload could be pretty heavy for a guy who hasn’t seen a live snap since New Year’s Day. The Steelers only have three healthy receivers on the roster in Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and little-used David Gilreath.
Pittsburgh’s passing game has thrived under Haley this season, with Roethlisberger on pace for career-highs in attempts, completions, completion percentage and touchdowns before going down. The only thing the Steelers lack is a receiver who presents a mismatch in the red zone, a role Burress can fill nicely.
Batch and Burress aren’t the only familiar faces who could return this weekend.
Safety Troy Polamalu — out since Oct. 4 with a right calf injury — will run on Wednesday and Tomlin did not immediately rule him out. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who is rehabbing from ligament damage to his ankle, has been cleared for individual work thought it’s uncertain when he will be cleared to practice.
NOTES: To make room for Burress and Hoyer, the Steelers released DB Marshall McFadden and RB Baron Batch … Tomlin said he doesn’t believe the injuries to Cotchery or Leftwich are season ending, adding he believes Leftwich fractured the ribs while getting sacked in the second half against the Ravens … RB Isaac Redman, who left the Ravens game with a concussion, has responded well to testing and should practice this week.