FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. In their 31-27 loss to New Orleans on Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons allowed 148 yards rushing, marking the fourth time this season they have yielded at least that many.
All of it begs the question: Are the Falcons a poor tackling team or did they just have a bad day? Falcons head coach Mike Smith seemed to settle on the idea that it came down to one play gone horribly wrong.
With the Falcons up 10-0 early, Chris Ivorys 56-yard touchdown run changed the momentum of the game. Smith counted four missed tackles on that single play that conspired to give the Falcons their first loss of the season. Smith said the Falcons would not practice tackling live to help improve that effort, but offered this answer.
Again, it was one play where we had the missed tackles, but it was critical, he said. The explosive plays that we had in the ballgame yesterday were all touchdown plays, but in regards to tackling theres ways to work on tackling. You break it down into its elementary phases and you work on it. Weve got to do that and we will.
Its a widely held notion across the NFL that tackling fundamentals have suffered. Coaches are reluctant to practice tackling live for fear of injuring players. Falcons players said on Monday that they might be going for the highlight-reel hit instead of the fundamental play.
Despite being unbeaten entering the game, the Falcons had the leagues No. 24-ranked run defense. Smith said it has been the teams Achilles heel.
Running the ball 13 times for 116 yards, the Saints built a 21-17 halftime lead that they would never give back. Eight of those runs were for five yards or longer.
In the second half, the Falcons defense buckled down as halftime adjustments kicked in. They held the Saints to 10 points and 32 yards on 16 carries and only three runs of five yards or longer.
Weve got to do a better job across the board in defending the run, Smith said. Its been an issue thats probably been our Achilles heel on the defensive side of the ball, but sometimes those numbers get skewed by those explosive runs.
One of the specialties of Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is getting teams in third-and-long and pressuring the quarterback with exotic blitzes. With the Saints getting five yards so often on first and second down through runs, Nolan didnt have much of a chance to pressure Saints quarterback Drew Brees in the first half and Brees picked them apart. He passed for 152 yards and two touchdowns, as New Orleans converted two of three third-down situations.
When the Falcons defended the run better in the second half, they were able to get more pressure on Brees and get off the field more often on third down. New Orleans converted only 2 of 7 third-down situations in the second half.
Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson is a strong run defender, but he was at a loss to explain the Falcons tackling woes.
I dont know, he said. We play extremely hard, you know what I mean? Weve got guys flying around. We have guys that tackle well on this football team. Probably just got to come more under control. Everybodys trying to make that big play and probably just come a little bit under control and swarm and gang tackle and I think well be fine. Thats something we can correct. We just got to get it corrected.
Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux also suggested that most of the missed tackles came on the one play.
I just think we had some bad angles and then we werent wrapping up on that play so thats what made into an explosive play and eventually a touchdown, he said.
He also talked about getting back to fundamentals.
I just think we just got to do a better job of eying the target and making sure were securing it, he said. Its OK to get a good shot on guys, but we got to make sure that we secure that tackle also.
Consistency also is a problem. Linebacker Stephen Nicholas pointed out that the Falcons had played the run well two weeks in a row prior to Sunday. They limited Philadelphia to 92 rushing yards on Oct. 28 and then held Dallas to 65 the Falcons two best outings of the season.
I dont think its been a problem all year long, Nicholas said of tackling. Just last week we were good at the run game. The week before that we were great at the run game. Just missing tackles. You miss tackles, explosive runs show up on the run game.
Its a phase of the game that the Falcons will need to fix to beat the upper-echelon teams they will face remaining on their schedule.