There’s not much they can do about the injuries.
If they don’t start winning, they can forget about those Super Bowl hopes as well.
The Falcons (1-3) are two games below .500 for the first time in the Matt Ryan era and mired in their first losing streak since 2009 going into tonight against the New York Jets.
“There’s certainly a sense of urgency,” said Ryan, in his sixth season as Atlanta’s quarterback. “We haven’t started the way we wanted, but we understand it’s a long season.”
The Falcons have been rocked by injuries in the opening month. Defensive end Kroy Biermann is out for the year. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon will miss at least half the season. Running back Stephen Jackson is sidelined for the third straight game with a hamstring injury. Offensive tackle Sam Baker (knee) and linebacker Akeem Dent (ankle) won’t play against the Jets, either.
But every team must cope with injuries to some extent, the Jets (2-2) among them.
No one is going to give the Falcons a pass just because they’re not at full strength, especially when it’s clearly a Super Bowl-or-bust season.
“This is a good game for us to get our ship righted, and get this thing going in the right direction,” safety Thomas DeCoud said.
The red zone has been the biggest problem.
Atlanta’s offense ranks 29th in the league in touchdown percentage from inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Last week’s 30-23 loss to New England was especially troubling, as the Falcons produced only one touchdown with six red-zone possessions. They settled for three field goals and were stopped two other times on fourth down, the last of those coming in the final minute when they had a chance to force overtime.
“It’s not just one area, not just one group,” coach Mike Smith said. “We had some protection issues. We had some routes that weren’t run right. We had some drops. We had some missed throws. I can assure you we are addressing it as a coaching staff with our team.”
Injuries have definitely limited the offense when opponents have less ground to cover. With Jackson out and the line shaky, the Falcons aren’t much of a threat to score touchdowns with their running game. Receiver Roddy White has been slowed by a slow-healing ankle sprain, allowing coverages to focus on the other receiver, Julio Jones, and tight end Tony Gonzalez.
“Guys start doubling me in the red zone a lot, and sometimes three guys will be on me,” Jones said.
The Jets have dealt with plenty of injuries to their receivers, though they should be bolstered this week by the return of Stephen Hill from a concussion. Santonio Holmes is still out with foot and hamstring problems.
No matter who’s running the routes, Geno Smith must do a better job protecting the football.
The rookie quarterback shares the NFL lead with 11 turnovers, including eight interceptions. He was picked off twice and lost two fumbles, leading to 28 points, in last week’s 38-13 rout by the Titans.
“We want to be aggressive,” coach Rex Ryan said. “But you don’t want to do something to the detriment of your football team. Clearly, turning the football over has been a real problem.”
The Jets addressed the issue in practice, having defenders try to strip the ball away from Smith anytime they got a hand on him. Also, the coaches worked with the quarterback on holding the ball with two hands in the pocket, along with using a more secure grip when he takes off running.
Now, Smith has to take those lessons to the game.
“I’m really emphasizing taking care of the ball,” he said. “It comes with just preparation, knowing what you’re seeing, knowing when you have an opportunity to take a chance down the field.”
The Falcons know it’s far too early to raise the white flag.
Twenty-two teams have made the postseason after 1-3 starts under the current playoff format. But the Falcons already trail unbeaten New Orleans by three games in the NFC South and will merely be playing for a wild card if they fall much farther behind the Saints.
“It’s still early and we’ve still got a lot of key guys out,” Jones said. “When we find our stride and get this thing rolling, we’ll be OK.”