Wiedmer: Atlanta Falcons need to improve quickly

Wiedmer: Atlanta Falcons need to improve quickly

October 1st, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

New England Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (47) and New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) vie for a loose ball with Atlanta Falcons linebacker Omar Gaither (53) and Atlanta Falcons punter Matt Bosher (5) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, in Atlanta.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

ATLANTA -- Veteran wide receiver Harry Douglas said it best early Monday morning, less than 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Atlanta Falcons' 30-23 loss to unbeaten New England inside the Georgia Dome.

"We can't make every game a 'get down to our last series and try to win' game," observed the Atlanta native. "It's great if you come out with a victory, but this is the third loss."

Just for the record, it's the third loss in four games. Expecting their heroes to challenge for the Super Bowl at season's dawn, Falcons Nation now must start to worry if there are still enough wins out there to make the playoffs.

"We know we've got a long haul in front of us," Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said after the Falcons were 1-for-6 in the red zone, lowering them to 7-for-18 on the season in scoring touchdowns inside the opponents' 20. "There are 12 more games to go and a lot can happen during that time, but our mindset has to be on next week. We've got to try and find a way to win next week and then keep that mindset week in and week out, just being detailed and focused on that one opponent and claw ourselves back into where we want to be."

It certainly sounds doable, especially with the New York Jets visiting the Dome next Monday night and Tampa Bay arriving on Oct. 20 following the Falcons' off week.

In fact, visits from New Orleans and Seattle are the only games left on Atlanta's schedule that currently involve teams with winning records. At least for the moment, every other game comes against a team that currently stands .500 or worse, including NFC South brother Tampa Bay, which is yet to earn a win.

So when wideout Julio Jones says, "I feel like we got better from this game against the Patriots," you want to believe him. Especially when one considers that Atlanta's three defeats have come against teams that currently stand a combined 11-1 on the season.

But that also doesn't mean Atlanta isn't in trouble. And the won-loss record isn't the only reason.

As bad as the red-zone numbers have become, it's the inability to rush the football with any consistency that may prove the biggest obstacle to a postseason run. Atlanta began Sunday ranked 22nd in the NFL in average rushing yards (90). It got all of 58 against the Patriots in 15 attempts. And this is a New England team that was surrendering over 120 yards rushing a contest entering Sunday, which ranked it 24th among the league's 32 teams.

Conversely, the undefeated Patriots stood 12th in rushing before Sunday's game, then piled up 10 more yards than their average against the Falcs, finishing with 132 yards on 31 carries.

Atlanta can fairly blame much of its rushing woes on the continued absence of running back Steven Jackson, who was injured on the first possession of the season's second game and hasn't played since. Expecting to get the same 77 yards he piled up against the Saints in the season opener in every game, the Falcons have now been forced to rely on undersized Jacquizz Rodgers (5-foot-9, 196) or veteran reserve Jason Snelling.

Both are solid backups but neither can replace Jackson, who isn't expected back until the Oct. 20 game against the Buccaneers at the earliest.

If the Falcons can't or won't run the ball in the future, it's almost impossible to see them winning nine of their final 12 contests, which is probably the minimum they'll need to qualify for the postseason.

There's also the team's second-half struggles. Tied at 10 at intermission against the Patriots, the Falcons fell behind 30-13 at one point. Up 10-0 on New Orleans early on, Atlanta lost. Far in front of St. Louis at halftime (24-3), Atlanta won 31-24.

"We start out good, but for whatever reason in the second half we're not," said tight end Tony Gonzalez, who was the best thing the Falcons had going against New England, finishing with 12 catches for a career-high 149 yards and a touchown. "And it's all of us, collectively. It's no one player."

If you had wagered some coin in August that the Tennessee Titans would stand 3-1 today and the Falcons 1-3, you might own your own Caribbean island right now.

But four games do not a season make or break. Forced to play for at least a month without quarterback Jake Locker, the Titans may tumble. Able to play the rest of the NFL instead of the league's best for a few weeks, the Falcons may rumble.

But the following words from the Falcons' Ryan are inarguable a quarter of the way through the season: "We still have a long way to go."

And a shrinking amount of time to get there.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.