Falcons' offense still searching for consistency
By GEORGE HENRY
Dec. 29, 2017
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons are still searching for consistency on offense with one game left in the regular season.
Hoping to be in the playoffs next week, the team is running out of time to erase so many doubts.
In its first year under coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the offense has done plenty right, leading the NFL in third-down percentage and ranking in the top 10 in rushing and passing.
But heading into another NFC South showdown with Carolina, the Falcons can't take too much satisfaction in their success on third down when they also rank No. 22 in time of possession. Struggling to sustain long drives has played a big role in the offense falling from first in scoring to 15th.
Last year's offense, ranking second-best in time of possession, played at such a high level that Atlanta advanced to the Super Bowl.
"I guess we've just got to hold onto the ball a little longer," receiver Mohamed Sanu said. "I feel like we're doing great on third down, obviously. We've just got to keep going and put points on the board."
Atlanta (9-6) heads into Sunday's home game against the Panthers (11-4) needing to reverse course from last week.
The offense was sluggish at New Orleans, failing to convert in three of four chances in the red zone, going just 2 for 13 on third down and allowing quarterback Matt Ryan to get sacked five times, its most since October 2015.
Running back Devonta Freeman had a particularly bad day, losing a fumble at the Saints 1-yard line in the third quarter, getting stopped for no gain on fourth-and-goal at the 1 in the final period and getting whistled for unnecessary roughness and a facemask penalty.
The Falcons lost 20-17 and can't afford a similar performance. A win over Carolina puts them in the playoffs. If they lose, the Falcons can still earn a wild-card spot if Seattle loses at home to Arizona, but that's not the best way to build confidence.
"We understand the circumstances," right tackle Ryan Schraeder said. "You want to head into the playoffs with a win."
Sarkisian is still picking apart Week 9 film of a 20-17 loss at Carolina to figure out how to beat a scheme that's among the best at disguising coverages. Atlanta had some glaring mistakes as Ryan overthrew Julio Jones on a potential touchdown pass in the first half and Jones, a two-time All-Pro, dropped a would-be TD pass in the fourth quarter.
The Falcons also hurt themselves by failing to convert a fourth-and-1 and a third-and-1 that led to 10 points for the Panthers, but Sarkisian would rather face those situations than the alternative.
"We know this is going to be a one-possession game this Sunday, so it's important that we're at our best in those moments," Sarkisian said. "I think we've put in good prep to take advantage of those opportunities when we get them because against this defense it would be nice to be in multiple short-yardage scenarios. You don't want to be in the third-and-longs. That's when the game can get hard on you."
Ryan also needs his receivers, who are tied for the NFL lead with 28 dropped passes, to improve their concentration. He was voted NFL MVP last season after having seven games with at least three touchdown passes. This year, he has none.
"Things are going to go bad," Sanu said. "There's always going to be ups and downs. You've just got to know how to bounce back and react."
NOTES: C Alex Mack (calf) and TE Levine Toilolo (knee) did not practice. Jones (ankle, thumb), LG Andy Levitre (triceps) and RG Wes Schweitzer (groin) were limited. ... Coach Dan Quinn isn't concerned having three starting offensive linemen on the injury report. "They're a pretty tough group," he said. "They know what's at stake, and they'll be ready to rock."