No one’s sure when it started, but somewhere during the last few seasons the Falcons stumbled onto a problem. The Falcons, simply put, have had trouble closing games out.
It became clear in last week’s 27-23 loss when the Falcons surrendered a 10-point lead and ultimately lost, falling to 1-2 on the season. That loss triggered concern across Falcons nation and introduced such phrases as “red zone scoring,” “efficiency” and “finishing” into the lexicon of Week 4 preparation. The entire team has had to talk about it and hear about it over and over and it’s something that has to change if Atlanta wants to right the ship, defeat the incoming 3-0 Patriots and get back on track this season.
Last season the second-half issues didn’t become a “problem” until the end of the season with the loss to the 49ers, but it was mainly because the Falcons became so good at coming back and winning in the final moments after giving up leads. This season they’ve outscored their opponents 31-0 in the first quarter, but have surrendered leads twice. Last week’s glaring 2-for-5 statistic inside the redzone has as much to do with squandering leads as anything because if the Falcons offense can put touchdowns on the board instead of field goals, they’re going to be winning most games.
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This week represents a new opportunity to get back on track against a Patriots defense that has allowed touchdowns on 50 percent of the trips inside the 20. Touchdowns will be needed against a Tom Brady-led offensive attack and a better performance in the second half will get the Falcons the points they need. This season only two of Ryan’s six touchdowns have come in the second half. Traditionally he’s been better than that. Last season 13 of his 32 touchdowns came in the second half and in 2011, 12 of his 29 came in that half.
The leads the Falcons have built early have to be maintained and Ryan said earlier this week, they have to stay aggressive once they’ve gotten those leads.
“I think that’s part of the art of playing quarterbacks: staying aggressive but also avoiding those turnovers,” Ryan said. “The guys that do it well, you don’t even notice what is going on. When you’re playing with a lead, you’ve always got to keep your foot on the accelerator, keep trying to score points and keep trying to put the ball in the end zone. At the same time, not giving it away. We’ve done a decent job of that, we just need to score more points when we’re ahead. If we can do that, obviously that’s going to help us out.”
On Monday, head coach Mike Smith said the responsibility for improving these areas falls first with him, but no one is excused from sharing the responsibility. Smith said playing efficiently had to come first and then playing each game like it was the final play of the game came next. If both of those areas could improve, red zone scoring wouldn’t be a problem, holding leads wouldn’t be a problem and ultimately winning games wouldn’t be either.
When players were asked through the week what it means to play more efficiently, the unanimous answer was it meant better efficiency in all areas of the game. Safety William Moore said it was a team task.
“It doesn’t come down to one specific person,” Moore said. “There’s no finger pointing. When you look at all of our losses, they come down to everybody finishing. It’s just not just defense or offense, it’s everybody.”
While the red zone efficiency points to the offense, the defense, as Moore said, has played a role. This season the defense has allowed 48 second-half points against just 26 in the first half, all coming in the second quarter. Last season they allowed more points in the first half (160) than they did in the second (139), but in 2011, they were outscored in the second half 198 to 149.
The stats reinforce the idea that losing second-half leads is a team issue and not one that falls specifically on one side of the ball. While the defense works on holding the leads the offense has staked them this season, Ryan and the offense want their efficiency improvements to come by running better, throwing better, catching better and protecting better.
“Ultimately, we just have to make more plays,” Ryan said. “We’ve had our chances, but one thing or another has got us off schedule down there. That’s something we’re going to work hard on in practice and try to improve.”