Falcons head coach Mike Smith said on Tuesday that injuries will not be used as an excuse to explain the start to the 1-4 season. Players have to be ready to step in and put the “next man up” philosophy to action on the field. This year’s defense has been hit especially hard in the injury department with one starter lost for the season (Kroy Biermann), another expected to return later in the year (Sean Weatherspoon) and others missing varying amounts of time (Asante Samuel, Akeem Dent).
With the injuries and depth players seeing more time on the field comes inexperience in situational football and the Falcons have seen plenty of that this season, especially on third downs. Last season, the Falcons defense allowed an opponent third-down conversion rating of 40.19 percent, a number closer to the league average than best or worst. They used the experience they had on the field force turnovers, making up for some of their misses on third down. This season is another story.
Through five games in 2013, the defense is ranked last in the NFL, allowing opponents to convert third downs 50 percent of the time. During the past three games, consecutive losses, they’ve seen conversions at a 55.56 percent rate. Smith pointed to that statistic when explaining the aspects of the defense that needs to improve the most moving forward for the Falcons.
“If you don’t get off the field on third down, it makes it very, very difficult; you can’t get the ball back to the offense,” Smith said. “We have not been good in the end of the games in two-minute situations. I think those are crucial areas we have to improve on, and we are obviously giving up way too many points on the defensive side.”
The troubles in two-minute situations and scoring defense relate back to third-down defense. In New York’s game-winning drive at the end of Monday night’s game, the Falcons defense allowed the Jets to cover 55 yards to get into field goal distance to put the game away. The inability to stop the Jets in that two-minute, end-of-game situation demonstrates what Smith has been talking about in regards to finishing games. The New York offense had five first downs in just less than two minutes and the most critical first down came on a third-down conversion that essentially iced the game. Missed tackles, according to Smith, were central to allowing the Jets to move the ball in the late-game opportunity.
“I thought that there was some crisp tackling, but it was very inconsistent,” Smith said. “We had a missed tackle that went in for a touchdown towards our locker room on a little simple flat route. We had two missed tackles on the first two plays on their two-minute drive, so we did not tackle as well as we needed to in the game (Monday night).”
On third-and-3 with 25 seconds remaining, the Falcons allowed Jets running Bilal Powell to gain 6 yards to Atlanta’s 25-yard line to earn the first down and position themselves for the game-winner. That was the sixth third-down conversion they allowed on the night in 11 chances and it ultimately proved to be the most damaging.
With a bye week on the schedule next, the Falcons will have plenty of time to find ways to correct the issues on third downs. The extra time off will also allow some banged-up Falcons like Dent and Samuel to get fully healthy to help turn things around.