Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and the 1-3 Falcons can’t afford another loss tonight when they host the New York Jets for Monday Night Football. (Reuters)
ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons have made three straight postseason appearances and won a pair of division titles in that span, but they are venturing into must-win territory entering tonight’s home matchup with the New York Jets.
The Falcons already trail NFC South front-runner New Orleans by three games and will be out to avoid a third straight defeat for the first time since 2007. The Jets will look to bounce back from a turnover-riddled loss at Tennessee last week.
New York, and rookie quarterback Geno Smith in particular, hardly looked ready for prime time against the Titans and managed only a single touchdown for the third time in four games. Smith, who won the quarterback job when incumbent Mark Sanchez suffered a serious shoulder injury in the preseason, committed four turnovers that Tennessee turned into 28 points.
“It’s something that has to stop now in order for us to progress and to get better as an offense and as a team,” Smith conceded.
Smith needs to curb his string of mistakes after throwing eight interceptions and turning over the ball 11 times through four games, tying for the league lead. That task could be arduous if Smith is without starting wide receivers Santonio Holmes (hamstring) and Stephen Hill (concussion), who had each gone over 100 yards in a Week 3 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
Holmes had only one reception last week before he was injured and voiced his displeasure about it this week, saying, “I can’t throw it to myself and catch it. Otherwise I would.”
Atlanta continues to lament its inability to convert in the red zone, but a bigger issue has been a defense that has yet to hold an opponent under 23 points, has produced only seven sacks and is allowing 26 points and a robust 393.3 yards per game. Matt Ryan threw for a career-high 421 yards in last week’s 30-23 loss to New England but the offense has been inconsistent without a healthy Roddy White (10 catches) and running back Steven Jackson, who will miss his third straight game with a hamstring injury. Wideout Julio Jones leads the league with 481 receiving yards.
Part of Atlanta’s problem has been the team’s lack of pass protection, but Ryan believes that is improving.
Ryan, the team’s $100 million man, has been under siege as his revamped offensive line has struggled to protect him over the first four games.
“I don’t know really much about the perception,” Falcons offensive line coach Pat Hill said. “I’m not too involved in that. I do know that we’ve got to keep working to perfect our trade on a weekly basis.”
The unit will face another stiff challenge against a Jets team that entered Week 5 of the season tied for third in the NFL with 14 sacks.
Because of injury and performance, the Falcons have had to do some juggling at the tackle position. Lamar Holmes, who opened the season as the right tackle, is set to start his second game at left tackle for Sam Baker. Jeremy Trueblood, who was picked up after being cut by the Redskins, was elevated to the No. 1 spot at right tackle.
“We’ve had a lot of movement on that line, and that makes it more difficult on those guys,” Ryan said. “When you’re playing in the same spot or you’re not playing next to the same guy week-in and week-out, it’s difficult. With the offensive line play, you are so dependent on the guy next to you.”
Normally, with a clean pocket and sturdy protection, Ryan delivers passes with deadly accuracy.
In defense of the line play, the Falcons point out that they have given up only seven sacks, which ranks eighth in the league. But the number is low because Ryan is an expert at reading defenses and delivering quick passes.
The New England game is an example. The unit allowed only two sacks, but Ryan was hurried 15 times and hit twice out of 60 dropbacks, according to the highly respected analytics website profootballfocus.com. For the season, Ryan has been hit 16 times and hurried 58 times.
“They’ve battled, and we’re improving,” Ryan said.
Hill and Paul Dunn, the Falcons’ offensive line coaches, want better protection.
“We throw the football a good amount of times, and we have to be better with protections,” Hill said. “When you throw the ball a lot, you have to be good at protection. That’s what we have to do.”
When Ryan attempts a pass within two seconds of the snap, he has been accurate on 33 of 35 passes, according to profootballfocus.com. His accuracy percentage of 94.3 percent in those situations is the highest in the league. When under pressure and he takes 2.1 seconds or more, his accuracy percentage drops to 69.3 percent, which is near the NFL average.
“It just goes back to coming together as a team,” center Peter Konz, who’s in his first year as the center and is trying to replace long-time starter Todd McClure.
Falcons coach Mike Smith said that the offensive line had its best pass-protection game of the season against the Patriots. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said, “I’m encouraged by their development.”
The linemen seem to know that the protection must improve.
“There were two sacks, so we need to get rid of those because it’s our job to keep Matt clean because any times he feels pressure, were not going to get the best throw off, so we need to protect a little bit better,” Konz said.
Ryan has not hounded the lineman for better blocking.
“Matt is always positive,” Konz said.
Left guard Justin Blalock, who was drafted in 2007, is the longest-tenured member on the line.
“We haven’t change anything schematically speaking,” Blalock said. “Most of it has been working on our communications.”
Opponents also made it a priority to get the ball out of Ryan’s hands. If he has time and protection, teams are at his mercy with receivers Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White, when healthy.
So, the group is seeing a lot of tricks and ploys to spring free blitzers against Ryan.
“Across the league you are seeing all of these different packages,” Blalock said. “All of this crazy stuff. All sorts of things. So, we’ve just been working on the timing between individual players. That has probably been the biggest key.”
Blalock doesn’t know what’s a good number of sack or hurries, but he does know the line must protect better.
“Honestly, you want to have a few as possible,” Blalock said. “It would be great not to have any, but as everyone has seen across the league, there have been games when teams have five or six (sacks) and lose the game, and sometimes they have none and win. I don’t want to say that it’s a be-all and end-all statistic of defense and winning football games.”