Fal­cons have gone from high hopes to ma­jor dis­ap­point­ment

The Standard Journal - - LOCAL SPORTS - By Paul New­berry AP Sports Writer

FLOW­ERY BRANCH — Calvin Ri­d­ley is go­ing through quite an ad­just­ment.

Dur­ing his col­lege days at Alabama, he hardly knew what it was like to lose.

“It was three games, right?” Ri­d­ley said Wed­nes­day, paus­ing briefly to pon­der whether his mem­ory was cor­rect. “Three games,” he re­peated, shak­ing his head. “That’s crazy.”

The re­ceiver al­ready has tasted more de­feat in his rookie sea­son with the At­lanta Fal­cons.

Ex­pected to be one of the NFL’s stronger teams, the Fal­cons are prob­a­bly the most dis­ap­point­ing through the first five weeks of the sea­son. Stricken by an epi­demic of in­juries and plagued by a bunch of close losses, At­lanta (1-4) al­ready faces a three-game deficit in the NFC South and es­sen­tially has no more room for er­ror. They were set to play Tampa Bay af­ter press time.

“I’m start­ing to re­al­ize this is the NFL — every­one’s good,” Ri­d­ley said. “It’s a hard league.”

This cer­tainly wasn’t what the Fal­cons ex­pected, just two years re­moved from a trip to the Su­per Bowl and com­ing off an­other play­off ap­pear­ance last sea­son, when they went right to the wire with the even­tual cham­pion Philadel­phia Ea­gles.

But At­lanta got a sam­pling of what kind of sea­son it was go­ing to be in the very first game.

In a prime-time re­match against the Ea­gles, the Fal­cons drove to the 5-yard line for the fi­nal play of the game but couldn’t con­nect on a po­ten­tial game-win­ning pass to Julio Jones . Mak­ing the loss even more dev­as­tat­ing, safety Keanu Neal went down with a sea­son-end­ing knee in­jury and line­backer Deion Jones sus­tained a se­ri­ous foot in­jury that will keep him out at least half the year.

Af­ter hold­ing off Carolina 31-24 in the home opener, the Fal­cons lost their next two games at Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium in heart­break­ing fash­ion. New Or­leans ral­lied for a ty­ing touch­down with 84 sec­onds left in reg­u­la­tion, then won 43-37 in over­time . That was fol­lowed by Cincin­nati con­nect­ing on a TD pass with 12 sec­onds re­main­ing for a 37-36 vic­tory .

The in­juries con­tin­ued to pile up as well. Free safety Ri­cardo Allen , one of the team’s most in­spi­ra­tional lead­ers, and of­fen­sive guard Andy Le­vitre both went down for the sea­son, while run­ning back Devonta Free­man missed three games with a bruised knee and Grady Jar­rett was side­lined by a sprained an­kle.

In past week­ends, the Fal­cons had a to­tal melt­down at Pitts­burgh. The Steel­ers ran wild in the se­cond half, scor­ing four touch­downs on the way to a 41-17 blowout .

It was the se­cond-worst loss of Dan Quinn’s coach­ing ca­reer, sur­passed only by a 38-0 rout by Carolina in 2015 — his rookie sea­son at the helm.

“We didn’t ex­pect to be here,” Quinn said, “but we damn sure don’t ex­pect to stay here.”

Per­pet­u­ally up­beat and one who fa­vors slo­gans and themes to mo­ti­vate his play­ers, Quinn doled out T-shirts that he hopes will help snap the Fal­cons out of their slump.

“Own Now” is em­bla­zoned across the front.

“We know there’s go­ing to be ad­ver­sity,” cor­ner­back Robert Al­ford said. “But we’ve still got a lot of ball ahead of us.”

The most press­ing con­cern is an atro­cious de­fense, which sim­ply hasn’t been able to deal with the loss of three key play­ers (and it was four last week, with Jar­rett on the side­line).

For the first time since 1987, the Fal­cons have sur­ren­dered at least 37 points in three straight games. Be­fore this stretch, that Carolina de­ba­cle from three years ago was the only time At­lanta had given up that many points in a game dur­ing the Quinn era.

Missed tack­les have been a ma­jor is­sue. There were at least 10 against the Steel­ers, prompt­ing Quinn to de­vote ad­di­tional time in prac­tice to ba­sic fun­da­men­tals.

“We’ve got to get it shored up with some of the men who need ex­tra work,” he said.

The spe­cial teams are an­other trou­bling is­sue. The Fal­cons have given up blocked punts in two of the last three games, both times on plays where the rusher sim­ply beat his man.

“That’s not ac­cept­able,” Quinn said. “It’s like be­ing on the bomb squad: get­ting it right nine out of 10 times is not get­ting it done.”

The of­fense has been more pro­duc­tive un­der se­cond-year co­or­di­na­tor Steve Sark­isian, but strik­ing a bal­ance be­tween the run­ning and pass­ing games con­tin­ues to be an is­sue a times. The Fal­cons ran just 19 times for 62 yards at Pitts­burgh, while Matt Ryan and backup Matt Schaub com­bined to throw 45 passes.

The Steel­ers were able to tee off on Ryan, who left late in the game with a foot prob­lem af­ter get­ting sacked for the sixth time.

At least the Fal­cons got some good news when it comes to their star quarterback. Ryan was back at prac­tice Wed­nes­day and said af­ter­ward that his in­jury was noth­ing se­ri­ous.

The Fal­cons haven’t started 1-5 since 2007, a lost sea­son marred by Michael Vick go­ing to prison for dog­fight­ing and coach Bobby Petrino aban­don­ing the team with three weeks to go.

/ AP-Gene J. Puskar

Pitts­burgh Steel­ers line­backer T.J. Watt sacks At­lanta Fal­cons quarterback Matt Ryan and forces a fum­ble that was later re­cov­ered for a touch­down in the fourth quar­ter of an NFL foot­ball game on Oct. 7 in Pitts­burgh.

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