Wiedmer: Falcons need to improve quickly

Wiedmer: Falcons need to improve quickly

August 26th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) is sacked by Tennessee Titans defensive end Derrick Morgan (91) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - In the 93-year history of the National Football League only one franchise has rallied from an 0-4 preseason record to capture the Super Bowl. And the 1982 Washington Redskins accomplished that in a strike-shortened season.

Just thought all you Atlanta Falcons fans out there would like something else to worry about after your Birds fell to 0-3 in exhibition games this month following Saturday night's 27-16 loss at Tennessee.

With Thursday night's preseason finale against Jacksonville inside the Georgia Dome now but three days away, Atlanta may need to add 5-Hour Energy drinks to the sideline coolers to avoid an unofficial 0-4 start.

Moreover, is this really how a Super Bowl favorite -- which the Falcons are reported to be -- should look 15 days from the start of the regular season?

"We just did not play up to our standard tonight in many, many phases," said Atlanta coach Mike Smith, who's beginning his sixth season in Flowery Branch. "Collectively, we've got a whole lot of work to do over the next 14 days."

No truer words may have ever come from Smith's lips, and he's one of the NFL's straightest shooters. The Falcons were badly out-rushed (171 yards to 106 yards), badly out-gained per passing play (7.6 yards to 5.2 yards) and finished 0-3 in the red zone.

Making matters worse, the third exhibition game is usually the one that most closely resembles a regular-season contest in terms of both planning and playing. Smith was even on record as saying this would be the first preseason game of the summer that he'd "game plan" for during the week.

To that end, both starting quarterbacks -- the Falcons' Matt Ryan, the Titans' Jake Locker -- were still on the field at the start of the third quarter.

To that end, 37-year-old Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez -- who'd pretty much been given the preseason off as a condition for him returning for at least one more year -- caught a 7-yard pass on Atlanta's second snap of the game.

To that end, Locker said afterward of Tennessee's first exhibition win this season: "You're lying when you say you don't really care if you win or lose. Even though these games aren't on your win-loss column, it's always better to go home a winner."

Yet here were the Falcons losing again, and for the second time in three outings by more than 10 points after being brutalized 34-10 by Cincinnati inside the Dome on August 8.

But as much as a number of stats should concern Falcons Nation today -- especially that 0-3 red zone figure -- none jumps out more than the five times Ryan was sacked in just 37 official snaps. These weren't the 1985 Chicago Bears the Falcons were facing. These were the Titans, who haven't made the playoffs since 2008 and who entered this game having collected all of three sacks over two preseason contests. Against the Falcons, they had six total.

"We gave up way too many sacks and way too many pressures on the quarterback," Smith said. "They hit our quarterback too many times."

On one level, as good as Atlanta could become, this is somewhat understandable. Veteran center Todd McClure retired after 13 seasons, all spent in the Big Peach. The Falcons decided not to re-sign right tackle Tyson Clabo. Then his probable replacement, Mike Johnson, was lost to injury for the season early in training camp.

That's a lot of chemistry and trust that must be quickly replaced, never an easy task.

(Note to Alabama fans: Not to needlessly rattle you on your march to a three-peat national title, but you've got to replace four offensive linemen total if you include Michael Williams, who started 41 games at tight end. Not to overly compare the two, but Tide center Barrett Jones was kind of Bama's Todd McClure, both wise and skilled. And D.J. Fluker was the right tackle. It may be nothing, but if the Tide struggles early, it won't be because A.J. McCarron's forgotten how to play quarterback or T.J. Yeldon's forgotten how to run to daylight.)

But back to to the Falcons. Maybe they'll ignore history, but most teams don't just instantly shrug off the preseason and become a well-oiled machine from the first week of the regular season forward.

Yes, this same basic team went 0-4 in the 2011 preseason, then reached the wildcard playoff game with a 10-6 record. But the 1979 Falcons finished 6-10 after an 0-4 preseason and the 2003 Birds were 5-11 after a winless exhibition campaign.

In fact, not only are the '82 Redskins the only team to win a Super Bowl after an 0-4 preseason, the 1990 Buffalo Bills and the 2000 New York Giants are the only other teams to reach a Super Bowl after so sorry a summer.

Still, with Gonzalez back, Atlanta retains the most fearsome receiving corps in the NFL. Smith is the only current NFC coach to record five straight winning seasons. In Steven Jackson the Birds also have their strongest running back since Smith took over.

But something needs to change in a hurry, if not instantly to avoid the most embarrassing and disappointing season in Falcons history, given the expectations for a team that was one play from reaching last year's Super Bowl.

Said Ryan, stating the obvious, "We have to get better."

And fast.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com