Falcons run into trouble inside red zone

Tight end Tony Gonzalez and the Falcons haven’t been productive inside the 20-yard line, where opponents don’t have to worry about Atlanta’s speedy receivers beating them deep and can focus on the Falcons’ other weapons. (Reuters)

Tight end Tony Gonzalez and the Falcons haven’t been productive inside the 20-yard line, where opponents don’t have to worry about Atlanta’s speedy receivers beating them deep and can focus on the Falcons’ other weapons. (Reuters)

ATLANTA — When the Falcons line up in the red zone, suddenly some of the things that make their pass-heavy offense so potent become more manageable for opponents.

Defensive backs can be more aggressive covering Julio Jones because he isn’t going deep. Tony Gonzalez’s underneath routes can be mucked up by lots of defenders covering a smaller area. Defenders have better luck wrestling Harry Douglas near the goal line rather than chasing him in space.

It’s hard for every NFL offense to score touchdowns from inside an opponent’s 20-yard line, but the Falcons’ subpar running game adds to its challenge. The Falcons have attempted 10 rushes and 21 passes in the red zone in three games.

Wide receiver Roddy White figures the Falcons, who have scored one rushing touchdown in the red zone, have to keep trying to run.

“You just can’t throw it in, especially if they are dropping eight (pass defenders) back and there’s not as much room and not as much space back there,” White said. “We are just going to have to put bodies on bodies and find a way to get the ball in the end zone. Sometimes we are going to have to try to run it in. It is what it is.”

But that’s a challenge for the Falcons because their running game has been inconsistent for going on two seasons, and running the ball in the tighter quarters of the red zone is more difficult, too. Their 27-23 loss at Miami on Sunday, in which they couldn’t run the ball for scores, made the issue more pressing.

After going 2-for-5 on touchdowns in the red zone against the Dolphins, the Falcons are 50 percent (6-for-12) on the season, tied for 17th in the 32-team league. It’s a small sample size, and the Falcons’ history suggests it will get better, but their failure to convert cost them at Miami and in the season-opening loss at New Orleans.

Coach Mike Smith said he wants to finish in the top 10 in red-zone touchdown percentage, which usually means converting about 55 to 60 percent of the time. He deflected scrutiny from his players and assistants for the red-zone troubles.

“The responsibility goes to me,” Smith said. “It doesn’t go to the quarterback. It doesn’t go to the offensive line. It doesn’t go to the offensive coordinator. It’s my responsibility as the head coach to make sure we are more efficient in the red zone.”

Running the ball more effectively in the red zone would help, but the Falcons have issues doing it.

The offensive linemen have been inconsistent with their blocks, with center Peter Konz and tackles Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes repeat offenders. The Falcons also haven’t had much success running with tight formations, in part because tight end Tony Gonzalez hasn’t offered much as a blocker.

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said he believes the Falcons have the ability to finish drives with touchdown runs.

“We’ve got to prove that, though,” he said. “I can say that. We had a good opportunity (at Miami) on third-and-1 at the 2-yard line, and we couldn’t get a first down.”

On that play, Falcons running back Jason Snelling was stopped for no gain after Konz and Holmes were beaten by defenders, leaving Snelling with no lane. Smith said he would have tried for a first down if the distance needed was less than a yard, but decided to kick the field goal when he saw the spot was closer to 2 yards. Matt Bryant missed, and the Dolphins went on to score for the victory.

The week before against the Rams, the Falcons ran for a red-zone touchdown at a crucial point. Snelling followed right guard Garrett Reynolds into the end zone for an 11-yard score that secured the victory.

In their two losses, they’ve come close to red-zone scores that would have provided the winning margin.

Against the Saints, Jackson dropped a potential touchdown pass on third down. At Miami, Gonzalez was open across the middle on a play-action pass, but Ryan’s pass was off target — he had to throw a split second sooner than he likely wanted because of pressure from the left side.

“You have a lot of variables,” Koetter said. “It’s not any one thing in particular. As an offense, you have a smaller field to work with, so the defense can use the end line as an extra defender. But we have a good-enough scheme and good-enough players. We just have got to put it all together.”