NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The last time the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers met back in November, there was plenty of talk about how ineffective the Falcons were with their wide receiver screens.

The Panthers appeared to know exactly when those screens were coming and shut them down immediately. There was one screen when Julio Jones essentially got tackled by Panthers cornerback Josh Norman even before he caught the ball. Penalty or not, Norman had a read on the play.

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The Falcons still won the game 19-17. But a few days after that game, Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter declined to comment on why those screens hadn't been effective. And the screens suddenly vanished from the playbook. But receiver Roddy White would be the first to say they weren't eliminated.

"We're still going to throw our screens; we just have to find ways to get to them," White said. "We've got to find different ways to get to them. We get so many explosive plays off of the screen game.

"We realize what (Carolina) was trying to do. They were trying to hug on and hold onto the receivers at the line of scrimmage. We've done some things to kind of fix that so we can push these guys a little bit more and get our guys on their guys a little bit quicker. I felt like the last game, we didn't get to the guys that we had to block on the screens quick enough, so we've been working on that this whole week. We're going to fix our situations."

Jones, of course, is the primary threat in the screen game and has 553 yards after the catch this season, which is eighth best in the NFL. Although he's battling an oblique injury, he said he feels better than he did last week, when when he played 48 snaps against the Saints. So it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Falcons turn to Jones for a screen play or two.

"You have to have them to slow the pass rush down," Jones said of the screen. "Early on, we were battling injuries on our offensive line. We had to get those guys' chemistry together. Those guys, their chemistry is together now, man. They're doing a great job for us. The last couple of games, they've been doing a hell of a job protecting Matt (Ryan).

"But, like I said, it just slows down the pass rush. When those guys keep flying off the ball and flying off the ball, we hit them with a screen and it will slow them down."

Harry Douglas talked about learning from what happened with the screens against the Panthers the first time around.

"We just have to get on the defenders faster and have our spacing a little better so we can at least get them started," Douglas said. "They a great job last time of not allowing us to get to them and block them the way we wanted to do.

"Of course screens are a big part of what we do. And we have to hit them, especially to slow pass rushers down."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones returned to practice Friday for the first time since suffering an oblique injury at Green Bay Dec. 8.

Jones missed the game the following week against the Steelers due to the injury but was back in action last week against the Saints. He played 48 of 65 snaps in the Saints game and caught seven passes for 107 yards.

The Falcons had no doubt about Jones being ready for this Sunday's showdown with the Panthers for the NFC South title. Having him back at practice probably is an indication Jones is healthier than he was last week.

Also at practice Friday, running back Steven Jackson remained sidelined with a quadriceps injury, although he did some work on a side field. Jackson won't play against the Panthers.

Cornerback Josh Wilson, who missed the previous two days with a hamstring injury, returned to action and participated in special-teams drills at the start of practice.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- One of the many positives to come out of last Sunday's win for the Atlanta Falcons over the New Orleans Saints was the play of rookie running back Devonta Freeman.

The fourth-round draft pick from Florida State not only looked exceptional running the ball on a 31-yard touchdown blast, he also looked pretty comfortable splitting out wide as a receiver on a 36-yard reception.

[+] EnlargeFreeman
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsRookie running back Devonta Freeman is the Falcons' second-leading rusher with 235 yards.
Freeman's flashes definitely caught the eye of quarterback Matt Ryan. And Ryan was asked during his weekly radio show on Atlanta's 680 The Fan why Freeman doesn't get the ball more.

"You know, feel like that's a very deep position for us," Ryan said. "We still feel like 'Quizz [Rodgers] and Steven [Jackson] do a great job for us as well. But, again, Devonta keeps showing that he's capable of making big plays when they present themselves.

"He was huge for us on Sunday. He obviously had the big catch, but he had an explosive touchdown run. He's certainly making his case for getting more touches."

Ryan also was asked about his relationship with Freeman.

"Oh, Devonta's a good kid," Ryan said. "He's a quite a guy, but he's got a great attitude. He loves to play. And he loves to compete. And he wants to get better. Every day he's in here, he's working hard to get better and constantly asking me questions; what he can do. I've tried to be as helpful as I can be to bring him along in our offense as quickly as possible."

Freeman might get plenty of touches in Sunday's showdown versus the Carolina Panthers for the NFC South title. Jackson suffered a quad injury against the Saints and had an MRI on Monday. The injury, at first, wasn't thought to be serious. But Jackson's status remains in limbo, meaning the Falcons might have to consider whether they'll need him more for veteran experience in a playoff situation.

That's not to say Freeman will shoulder the entire burden against the Panthers. He's still young and inexperienced, so the last thing the Falcons want to do is overwhelm him in such a crucial must-win situation. That's why it wouldn't be a surprise if Rodgers starts if Jackson can't go, although Freeman surely will get his share of opportunities if he's healthy.

Falcons coach Mike Smith has been impressed with Freeman's development.

"Devonta has improved every week," Smith said. "I think the biggest thing, as we said if you go back and look at transcripts from training camp, it was going to be about his ability to pick up the pass protection. And he did outstanding job [against the Saints]. He was called on because of the injury to Steven Jackson to play more snaps. He did a good job in his pass protection. He's a very good slash runner. He's does a good job hitting the hole. And he made a very good run on the long touchdown run. He's got some sneaky speed. He's not super fast, but he's fast enough to run away from guys in the secondary."

Freeman currently has the highest per-carry average among the three Falcons running backs at 4.0 yards per carry. He also has 28 receptions, two more than Rodgers and eight more than Jackson.
The Week 17 showdown for the NFC South title between the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers has been flexed from 1 p.m. ET on Fox to 4:25 p.m. on CBS this Sunday, the NFL announced late Monday night.

Gates at the Georgia Dome will open at 2 p.m. and parking lots will open at 11 a.m., the Falcons announced.

The 6-9 Falcons look to become the first team in NFL history to go undefeated in the division with a losing record. They defeated the Panthers, 19-17, in November in Charlotte and currently sit at 5-0 in division play. But the Panthers are in first place with a 6-8-1 record.

"I think that we will definitely get their best shot, just like we're going to give them our best shot," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "It ought to be a hell of a football game."

In last year's season finale at the Georgia Dome, the Panthers walked away with a 21-20 win while sacking Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan a franchise-record nine times. Carolina won the division title last season.

The NFC South, first established in 2002, has never had a repeat champion.
Here are a few things to watch for as the 5-9 Atlanta Falcons try to avoid being eliminated from playoff contention Sunday with a showdown against their NFC South rivals, the 6-8 New Orleans Saints:

GOING ALL OUT: Falcons coach Mike Smith knows his job is on the line. He'd be silly to think anything else. That being said, Smith can't afford to hold back in this game. When the Falcons have a chance to score inside the Saints' 10-yard line, Smith can't settle for a field goal -- not even on fourth down. If the Falcons have a chance to put pressure on Drew Brees, Smith has to take the chance instead of being passive, like defensive coordinator Mike Nolan admitted to being in the season opener against the Saints. If a star player commits a key mistake through the course of the game, Smith needs to get in that player's face and let him know about it. And if there's a chance to use a trick play, this is the same to empty out the playbook. Just like his team has to play with a sense of urgency, Smith has to coach like everything is on the line. And if it comes down to another late-game situation, Smith has to be smart with his clock management.

FAST START: It's no secret the Falcons killed themselves with a slow start against the Steelers last week. In fact, the Falcons are 1-3 in games they've trailed after the first quarter this season. The only win? A 37-34 overtime triumph vs. the Saints in the season opener after being down 6-0 after the first quarter. The Falcons have to sustain drives and show they don't "suck" in the red zone, as offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter put it. Yes, it's going to be tough to walk into the Superdome and jump out to a lead, with the crowd roaring and the Saints feeling the same type of desperation. But the Falcons jumped out to a 10-0 lead in last year's game in New Orleans, although they lost a tough 23-17 decision. Matt Ryan has to be on point with his passes, unlike he was at the start last week. Yes, Ryan has to be nearly perfect. He gets paid the big bucks for moments like this. Having Julio Jones back certainly would help Ryan's cause.

PLENTY OF TURNOVER: Smith talked leading into the game about how it is a "must" to win the turnover battle. Then he mentioned how the Saints are 1-6 this season when they don't win the turnover battle. So, it's imperative for the Falcons to protect the ball, if nothing else. Eight of Ryan's 12 interceptions this season have come on the road. The Falcons are tied for 10th in the league with their turnover ratio at plus-4, while the Saints are 24th at minus-7.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: The Falcons have to make sure to jam Saints tight end Jimmy Graham to throw him off because the New Orleans offense is all about timing. ... It would be a bonus for the Falcons to get the kind of contribution from their running backs that they did against the Saints in the season opener (181 total yards; two touchdowns). ... Don't discount Devin Hester having an impact in this game, even if it's just with one return.

Falcons vs. Saints preview

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
8:00
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When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans. TV: Fox.

Their records aren't pretty. Their defenses have been downright disastrous at times. But the stakes remain as high as ever as the New Orleans Saints (6-8) and Atlanta Falcons (5-9) head toward Sunday's showdown with the NFC South title hanging in the balance.

Both teams still control their own playoff fates with two weeks remaining in the season. Win out, and they'll be hosting a playoff game. Lose Sunday, and they'll need a lot of help to get in.

Their first matchup in Week 1 was a high-scoring thriller, with the Falcons rallying to beat the Saints 37-34 in overtime in Atlanta. A repeat is certainly possible since they feature two of the NFL's top-five passing offenses and the league's two lowest-ranked defenses.

ESPN NFL Nation reporters Mike Triplett, who covers the Saints, and Vaughn McClure, who covers the Falcons, discuss Sunday's matchup:

Triplett: The Falcons have won only one of their past four games. But it looks like they've been putting up a good fight against good teams. Do you think they have a realistic shot at winning their last two games of the season, against the Saints and Panthers?

McClure: I think it all depends on one person: Julio Jones. If Jones is well enough to play through a hip injury that sidelined him last week, the Falcons have a legitimate chance. Personally, I anticipate Jones will be ready for the Saints, based on everything I'm hearing. The offense doesn't flow as smoothly without him in the lineup, of course. Quarterback Matt Ryan and Jones really started to develop a rhythm with the deep ball prior to Jones' injury. If Jones indeed plays Sunday, I will be curious to see if his speed and ability to get down the field is hampered at all by the injury. Not to mention the Falcons need him as a red-zone threat after missing out on two such critical red-zone opportunities against the Steelers. The Falcons can't go to the Superdome expecting to win this game with a slew of field goals.

I see Sean Payton shook up the secondary a bit Monday night against the Chicago Bears. How did the defense hold up after the change, and do you anticipate any other tweaks this week?

Triplett: Honestly, I still don't have any idea how the Saints' secondary will hold up against a functioning NFL passing offense, because the Bears and Jay Cutler were awful. But the Saints had to like what they saw from the overall energy and aggressiveness -- from both the two new starters (CB Terrence Frederick and S Jamarca Sanford) and the veterans who were demoted to lesser roles (S Kenny Vaccaro and CB Patrick Robinson). They snagged a season-high three interceptions and sacked Cutler seven times. However, everyone was disappointed how quickly they let the Bears score twice in garbage time toward the end. So it remains a work in progress.

As for any changes, I expect to see the same players, but the Saints may tweak their plan since the Falcons have the depth to spread the Saints' secondary thin -- as we saw in Week 1 when Matt Ryan threw for 448 yards. I'm curious to see how the Saints handle Jones if he's healthy. New Orleans has one outstanding cornerback in Keenan Lewis, who often shadows No. 1 receivers. But against deeper teams such as Atlanta and Pittsburgh, the Saints put Lewis on the No. 2 receiver and double-teamed Jones and Antonio Brown (a tactic that worked better against Pittsburgh than Atlanta).

I know a lot depends on Jones' health. But is Atlanta's passing game still as dangerous as it was in Week 1?

McClure: I look back at the numbers from last week and the Falcons were able to put up 407 total yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers even without Jones in the lineup. Ryan has enough weapons to spread the ball around. I mean, Harry Douglas stepped up with 10 catches for 131 yards last week while both Roddy White and Devin Hester had touchdown catches. I think the underrated aspect related to the passing game is how the offensive line has held up despite going through so many changes. That's a credit to offensive line coach Mike Tice, who lost five linemen to season-ending injuries. Ryan has been sacked only twice the past three games. And although the Falcons are a "passing" team, it only helps when they have some semblance of a running game. Such was the case in a season-opening win over the Saints, when Ryan threw for that career-high 448 yards as his running backs combined for 108 yards on the ground. The Falcons are 17-3 under coach Mike Smith when they have a 100-yard rusher.

I've grown accustomed to Drew Brees being synonymous with a high-powered offense and it looks like the Saints enter this game second in the league in total offense. But this hasn't been a typical Brees-like year. Could you tell me where things have gone wrong for him and how he's handled rumors about the team pondering his replacement?

Triplett: Brees' season has been funny because he's still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards, 35 touchdowns and a league-high completion percentage of 70.0 (sixth in NFL history). But you're right -- it has been a little shakier and less consistent than usual. The biggest problem is he has turned the ball over too many times in big situations (12 interceptions, two lost fumbles). I think he has pressed too much, feeling like he needs to do it all with the defense struggling. It has been an exact repeat of 2012 in that sense. The Saints' downfield passing game has also been spotty, with Brees settling for more check-down passes than usual.

All of that being said, Brees is still awfully sharp. He put on a clinic last week at Chicago, completing 18 of 20 passes in the first half. Three weeks ago, he threw five touchdown passes at Pittsburgh. He's still one of the NFL's elite -- and both he and the Saints know that. So while they may start looking for an eventual future replacement soon, there's no way that they're looking to move on in the short term.

These two teams are in a tight battle for the NFL's worst defense this year. Are the Falcons even worse off than they were in Week 1, and what are their biggest issues?

McClure: This question seems to come up every week. Yes, the Falcons surrender the most total yards in the league at 409.9 yards per game and the most passing yards at 292.5 yards per game. To put it simply, the lack of a consistent pass rush and the lack of legitimate playmakers on that side of the ball make the Falcons extremely vulnerable. There have been splashes of solid play, like the way the Falcons shut down Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell in the running game last week and the way they pressured Drew Stanton and the Cardinals a few weeks back. But consistency is non-existent.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has developed a reputation over the years for being creative with his schemes, but he doesn't have much to work with now. I think the Falcons made a mistake by spending their free-agent money on beefing up the defensive line with space-eaters Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, and both players would admit they set high standards for themselves. Desmond Trufant will be a cornerstone for the franchise for years to come as a shutdown cornerback, but Trufant can't beat Brees and the Saints by himself -- unless he comes up with a pick or two.

I see quite a challenge for the Falcons in trying to slow down running back Mark Ingram. Is it correct to say Ingram is starting to live up to his potential?

Triplett: Absolutely. He's on pace for his first 1,000-yard season even after missing three games with a hand injury. And he has been running with authority and confidence all year. However, a lot of his success has to do with the Saints finally improving their run game overall, dating to last season (Ingram had 97 yards in a playoff win at Philadelphia). And a lot of it has to do with opportunity.

First of all, trading Darren Sproles freed up Ingram to play more of an every-down role, and he has thrived by running out of passing sets, etc., instead of just heavy run packages. Secondly, he finally got the opportunity to be a featured back with 20-plus carries per week when Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas got hurt midseason, and he delivered in a huge way with four 100-yard games in a six-week span.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith made clear his feelings about providing injury updates on top receiver Julio Jones, who continues to recover from a hip injury.

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Jones, who missed last Sunday's game against the Steelers, did not practice Wednesday. Smith said Monday he wasn't going to engage in a "Julio watch" and reiterated his stance following today's practice.

"We'll make a decision on 10:30 [Central time] on Sunday morning, when we put in our inactives," Smith said. "And that will be the last time I'm going to talk about Julio."

All indications are Jones will be ready to go Sunday, no matter how the practice situation unfolds this week. The Falcons no doubt rested Jones against the Steelers knowing how crucial it would be to have him back for the Saints in Week 16. A loss in New Orleans means the 5-9 Falcons would be eliminated from the NFC South race and playoff contention.

Four other Falcons sat out Wednesday's practice, along with Jones: Roddy White (knee), Harry Douglas (foot), Jon Asamoah (back), and William Moore (foot). Cornerback Josh Wilson (hand) was limited.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who missed last Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with a hip injury, was not on the field for the start of Wednesday's practice.

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Coach Mike Smith said he anticipates having Jones back to face the Saints this Sunday. All indications are Jones is progressing well and will indeed suit up, barring any last-minute setbacks.

Also absent from the start of Wednesday's practice were receiver Roddy White (undisclosed), safety William Moore (foot), and right guard Jon Asamoah (back). Receiver Harry Douglas (foot) was on the field catching passes without a helmet.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- One of the big topics following the Atlanta Falcons' 27-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday was the status of outside linebacker/defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi, who was benched in the game just days after he complained about his snaps.

Falcons coach Mike Smith called the benching a "coach's decision." Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan followed up Tuesday by talking about his message to Massaquoi in this particular circumstance.

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"Just being frank with him, as I told Massaquoi just the other day -- and I'm not divulging anything that's secret between the two of us -- but he was playing well, he got hurt (against) Detroit, he came back injured, he hasn't played since, now all of sudden he's well again," Nolan explained. "That's fine, but now you have to practice that way so we can see that you're well, and get back on the field. And if it's the reps that you're concerned about, in practice, you know, there are scout-team reps to be taken all the time, so you can jump in on anything you want to say, 'Look, I'm well. And here's what I can do.'

"And I think Mass will do that. At least I'm hopeful he will. He's got something to offer. Last year, I thought he was one of our most improved defensive players. Matter of fact, he might have been the most improved defensive player. And last year, it showed late in the year. And we're obviously late in the year right now. So if he can do that, it would be great. But he didn't have the injury a year ago that he had this year that held him out for a month. ... Like I said, he's just got to show up."

Massaquoi injured his right foot during the Falcons' 22-21 loss to the Lions in London back in Week 8. He said his foot didn't really feel back to normal until before the Green Bay game in Week 14, but he played just seven snaps against the Packers. The lack of playing time led to him voicing his displeasure for the second time this season.

"As you see and I see and I know, if I get 40 snaps and I get into a groove and rhythm, I’m able to change the dynamics of the game," Massaquoi told ESPN.com last week.

It remains unclear whether Massaquoi's words led to his benching against the Steelers, and the coaching staff would never make that public.

Moving forward, it's fair to wonder if Massaquoi will be utilized in Sunday's crucial road game in New Orleans. A loss to the Saints would knock the 5-9 Falcons out of playoff contention.

Massaquoi, who has two sacks and six quarterback hits this season, played 26 of 75 defensive snaps when the Falcons beat the Saints 37-34 in the season opener.

Nolan was asked if Massaquoi can help the defense get after Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

"If he's playing at his top level, yeah," Nolan said. "But again, there's something to do before we just say, 'Hey, you look good. Go in.' You have to do some things in practice so we can see."

QB snapshot: Matt Ryan

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
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A quick observation of quarterback Matt Ryan and how he played in the Atlanta Falcons' 27-20 loss in Week 15:

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The aspect you have to appreciate about Ryan is how he owns up to his mistakes.

Such was the case after Sunday's game, when Ryan was uncharacteristically off in the first half. The biggest blunder was the pass he threw to Harry Douglas at the start of the second quarter that ended up right in the hands of Steelers cornerback William Gay, who returned it 52 yards for a touchdown.

"I let it go, and certainly a decision you can't make," Ryan said. "I can't do that. It stops there."

Yes, Ryan recovered nicely by finishing the day completing 26 of 37 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns. But he missed three of his first five throws, including the interception. And his two bad passes on the Falcons' first possession stalled a drive into Steelers territory. In all fairness to Ryan, playing without Julio Jones (hip) didn't help matters.

With their playoff lives on the line, the Falcons need Ryan to play like an elite quarterback for all four quarters, not just when the team is playing from behind. He'll be challenged this week simply by the circumstances of a hostile road environment against the bitter-rival Saints. Ryan is 1-5 all time vs. Drew Brees at the Superdome.
It looks rather improbable for the Atlanta Falcons to finish first in the NFC South now, although it's not impossible.

Monday night's 31-15 win by the Saints over the Bears means the Saints, now 6-8, are atop the division standings in front of the 5-8-1 Panthers and 5-9 Falcons. The scenario still exists for the Falcons to sweep their last two games against the Saints and Panthers and end up in the playoffs with a 6-0 mark in the division. But traveling to New Orleans Sunday won't make it any easier, considering the Falcons have lost three straight at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and dropped seven of the last eight there. Plus, the Saints have a little momentum from their convincing win over the reeling Bears.

The Falcons beat the Saints 37-34 in overtime in the season opener, but that was light years ago.

"We know that it’s a must-win game because it’s the next game," Falcons coach Mike Smith said of Sunday's matchup. "It’s very important. I think everybody’s aware of the ramifications. I think it will have an atmosphere of a playoff game. Any time we go to New Orleans it does. When we’ve gone down there, the games have been very competitive. I anticipate that it will be competitive as well. We all understand where we’re at. We all know that we control our own destiny. Doesn’t matter what anyone else does, and the first thing that we have to do is we have to play very well and win the ballgame in New Orleans.”

Having Julio Jones back should help matters, and all indications are Jones is a definite to play coming off that hip injury. But losing starting cornerback Robert Alford to a season-ending wrist injury might hurt, especially with the way Saints quarterback Drew Brees utilizes all his receivers. Eight different Saints caught passes Monday night. And the Falcons could have used Alford to keep up with speedy Kenny Stills, who had a 67-yard pass play against the Falcons at the Superdome last season with Robert McClain on him. McClain is now the starter in place of Alford.

More than anything, the Falcons need to get their offense flowing early in New Orleans and get off to a fast start. They did so in last year's season opener at the Superdome, jumping out to a 10-0 lead. It made for a winnable game, although the Falcons dropped a 23-17 decision as Matt Ryan's pass to Tony Gonzalez got tipped and picked off in the end zone in the final moments.

Smith was asked about getting off to a fast start this Sunday.

“Absolutely, it’s going to be very important for us," he said. "I hope that we’ll have a lot of fans there in New Orleans. I know because of the proximity we usually have a good contingent going down. It’ll be nice to see them down in the dome, but it’s going to be imperative that we start fast. But we also need to finish and play consistently. We’ve put together spurts of good football this season, and we haven’t been able to do it like we need to for 60 minutes. It’s going to be very important that we’re consistent.”
ATLANTA -- That wasn't a typical Matt Ryan performance, particularly at home.

The finally numbers showed the Atlanta Falcons' quarterback throwing for 310 yards and two touchdowns with a passer rating of 102.3 in Sunday's 27-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. But Ryan also got off to a slow start and misfired on some passes, including one at the beginning of the second quarter that cornerback William Gay intercepted and returned 52 yards for a score. It was the second home game in a row Ryan has thrown a pick-six and it's his third of the season.

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"It was just kind of a tough play," Ryan said. "I let it go and certainly a decision you can't make. I can't do that. It stops there."

Some wondered if receiver Harry Douglas should take some responsibility for the miscue because of the route he ran. Regardless, Ryan shouldn't have thrown the ball with Gay in tight coverage and over the top of the route.

"It was one of those plays where they played a funky coverage and guy just jumped the route," Douglas said.

Ryan was in a funk early, which is why the Falcons had to play catch-up against a Steelers team they could have outscored. On the first offensive drive of the game, Ryan threw consecutive bad passes to Douglas and Roddy White. The one was behind Douglas, while the other was too high and behind White. The Falcons had first-and-10 at the Steelers' 46-yard line but couldn't put points on the board as the incompletions stalled the drive.

When you consider the Steelers took a 20-7 lead into the locker room at halftime, it only magnified Ryan's pick-six and those misses. Throw in the fact the Falcons settled for field goals on two, third-quarter trips into the red zone and it all added up to the loss of a winnable game.

The Falcons also fell behind early last Monday night at Green Bay and couldn't recover.

"Not talking about last week, talking about this week, we didn't really get started the way we wanted to," said Ryan, who was without top target Julio Jones (hip injury). "We had an opportunity early on and just missed on a couple. We continued to battle back.

"I think offensively it comes down to a couple things: you can't turn the football over and when you have opportunities in the red zone, you've got to put it in the end zone. We didn't do a good enough job of that today."

And Ryan fully understands he has to absorb the bulk of the blame for it. He's the quarterback.

Roddy White wanted win, not record

December, 14, 2014
Dec 14
5:45
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ATLANTA -- Observed and heard in the locker room following the Atlanta Falcons' 27-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Georgia Dome:
  • White
    White
    Setting the record straight: Roddy White appreciated being acknowledged for setting a franchise record with his 62nd career touchdown, which occurred after his 4-yard score in the fourth quarter. But White saw no reason to bask in the moment. "It didn't mean anything today because we didn't win," he said. "You're judged in this league off wins and losses. That's all that really matters."
  • On the defensive: Cornerback Desmond Trufant obviously was frustrated with the illegal-contact penalty he picked up with 3 minutes, 5 seconds remaining in regulation that kept a Steelers drive alive after a third-and-4 incompletion by Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers went on to run out the clock after the Falcons gave up a 25-yard pass play from Roethlisberger to Heath Miller on third-and-1. "I'd have to see on film," Trufant said of the penalty. "I wish it didn't happen. All I can do is move on. I just know I'm going to get it back next week. That's all I can say."
  • Take your pick: Matt Ryan's pick-six on the first play of the second quarter obviously was one of the most pivotal plays of the game. It was a bad throw and a bad route run by Harry Douglas that led to William Gay's 52-yard interception return for a score. But Ryan and Douglas didn't make the only mistakes on the play. "We've got to be able to get the guy on the ground and give our defense an opportunity to go out there and play," Falcons coach Mike Smith said of his team failing to tackle Gay. "That was a critical play in the game, but there were a number of them."

Rapid Reaction: Atlanta Falcons

December, 14, 2014
Dec 14
4:13
PM ET

ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 27-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: The Falcons dropped to 5-9 overall but still have a shot at the playoffs. They have to win their last two games against the Saints and Panthers, the same scenario they faced going into Sunday's game. So, in essence, losing to the Steelers didn't matter. But these last two games mean everything if the Falcons hope to salvage the season, win the NFC South and host a first-round playoff game.

Stock watch: You have to give the defense a little credit for showing up in this game. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's crew had some hiccups, like a 44-yard catch-and-run surrendered to running back Le'Veon Bell, an illegal contact penalty by Desmond Trufant that kept a Steelers drive alive, and a 25-yard pass play from Ben Roethlisberger to Heath Miller on third-and-1 that essentially clinched the game. But the defense also came up with some key third-down stops and made the Steelers settle for a couple of field goals when they appeared destined to score touchdowns. Nose tackle Paul Soliai and linebacker Prince Shembo combined on a sack, and Tyson Jackson batted down a pass. Kroy Biermann also had moments when he brought solid pressure toward Roethlisberger. Again, the defense wasn't dominant, but it was good enough to put the Falcons in position to win. The offense simply couldn't close the deal. Matt Ryan's pick-six early in the second quarter really hurt.

Injury update: Julio Jones was held out of Sunday's game with a hip injury. Although Falcons coach Mike Smith was optimistic about Jones' status leading into the game, Smith probably knew all along the best approach would be to rest Jones for the final two games. It will be interesting to see if Jones makes a full recovery in time to have an impact performance against the Saints next week. The Falcons also hoped to get starting strong safety William Moore (foot), starting cornerback Robert Alford (wrist) and starting right guard Jon Asamoah (back) back from injuries.

Game ball: Roddy White didn't have a spectacular performance, but he deserves recognition for reaching a milestone. His 4-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter made him the Falcons' all-time touchdown leader with his 62nd career score, surpassing former running back Michael Turner. White finished Sunday's game with seven catches for 58 yards. Harry Douglas was a close second for game-ball honors with 10 catches for 131 yards in Sunday's game.

Next up: The Falcons travel to New Orleans for their most important game of the season against the rival Saints, whom they beat 37-34 in overtime in the season opener.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones and safety William Moore are listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Moore
Jones
Falcons coach Mike Smith reiterated that there will be game-time decisions on the status of both players. The only player ruled out was cornerback Robert Alford, who continues to recover from a broken wrist.

Jones' injury is believed to be a hip pointer, suffered in Monday night's 43-37 loss at Green Bay. He has not practiced all week, although Smith maintained that both Jones and Moore could play in the game without any practice time.

Moore, who injured his right foot, was on the field Friday for the first time since suffering the injury in Green Bay. He simply went through drills on the side with the athletic performance staff.

Jones was not seen doing any type of drill work through the course of the week.

"He's been working with our athletic performance guys in terms of working on his conditioning and running," Smith said. "He's been running, yes."

Smith again expressed confidence about Jones. At the same time, Smith said the decision is not up to him.

"I want the doctors and the people to say that he's ready to go," Smith said. "It's not going to be a decision I'm going to make. It's not a decision that Julio is going to make. They're going to evaluate it and make that decision."

In other news, fullback Patrick DiMarco missed Friday's practice while ill and is questionable for the game. Smith said the other players on the injury report are probable: Roddy White (ankle), Harry Douglas (foot), Stansly Maponga (elbow), Jon Asamoah (back), Justin Blalock (back) and Paul Soliai (shoulder).

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