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Weaknesses exposed, Falcons face gut-check time

Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons were forced to reconfigure their roster over the offseason to make room for quarterback Matt Ryan’s hefty contract extension.

After bidding farewell to defensive end John Abraham, right tackle Tyson Clabo, running back Michael Turner and cornerbacks Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson and Christopher Owens, the Falcons made Ryan the second-highest paid player in the league for the 2013 season with a $103.75 million contract.

After a 1-3 start behind a shaky offensive line and a rash of injuries, the Falcons still believe they made the right moves after winning 13 games, reaching the NFC Championship Game and coming up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl last season.

“I remain very optimistic about the season and what we’ll do as a team,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “In the big picture, it means a gut-check for us all in the organization.”

That means Ryan, too.

“I know one thing, we’ve got to be better in the red zone,” Ryan said.

The Falcons have scored just seven touchdowns on 18 red zone trips (38.9 percent), 28th in the league. The 18 trips leads the league.

“We’ve moved the ball really effectively through four games, kind of up and down the field and we’ve had a lot of opportunities in the red zone, we just haven’t scored as many touchdowns as we need to in order to win games,” Ryan said. “In my opinion it comes down to a little bit better execution down there.”

The Falcons have studied all of the film of the stalls.

“We’ve had opportunities, but across the board, our execution has not been what it needs to be,” Ryan said. “That is something that I think we can continue to work on, continue to improve on. We are not that far away. But it’s three or four more plays in those situations that are going to change the outcome.”

In the past the Falcons had bruising back Michael Turner, who could power through the wash and get into the end zone. Over the past five seasons, Turner had 51 red zone touchdowns. He had nine last year, nine in 11, 11 in 2010, eight in 2009 and 14 in 2008.

The Falcons, who want to run the ball better in the red zone, were hoping that Steven Jackson would replace Turner’s productivity. Jackson suffered a hamstring injury and is out indefinitely.

“Across the board, I think we just need to block a little bit better,” Ryan said. “We need to throw it a little bit better. We need to catch it a little bit better and our guys needs to run it a little bit better. If we can all pull our weight just a little bit more, I think we’ll be fine.”

Tight end Tony Gonzalez, who elected to come back for a 17th season, had a career-high 149 yards receiving in the loss to the Patriots. He has two of the seven red zone scores this season.

“He’s playing great,” Ryan said. “He seems to continue to get better as he keeps going on. First and foremost, he works his tail off. He really puts in the time on his body and is the consummate professional when it comes to that and having himself prepared out on the practice field. He’s great in that respect. And, so it doesn’t surprise me that he’s playing as good as he is. But it’s certainly, incredibly impressive.”

Wide receiver Roddy White has been playing through a high right ankle sprain and only has 10 catches for 84 yards this seasons. He’s getting closer to 100 percent and made be able to help more in the red zone.

“I think he’s continuing to improve,” Ryan said. “He’s certainly playing more for us and in a bigger role as we continue to progress through the season. Certainly, when he’s at full-go he’s one of the very best in the league.”

The Falcons will have a stiff test against the stout New York Jets’ defense.

“Their defense is playing extremely well,” Ryan said. “Specifically, their front seven is as physical in the run game and very good against the pass as well. So, we’ve got our work cut out for us. We know going into it that we’re going to prepare for everything that we’ve seen thus far, but there is going to be something that we have not seen up until this point. I think when you go up against a defense like that, I think it’s imperative that you know your game plan inside-out.”