Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  By JOHN MANASSO  |  Last updated 9/8/13
The 2013 season began for the Atlanta Falcons much the way their previous campaign ended: Coming up short on fourth down inside its opponents' 10-yard line with quarterback Matt Ryan under pressure.In January, the opponent was San Francisco and the failure to convert cost the Falcons a chance to advance to the Super Bowl. Eight months later, it was their most-hated foe, the New Orleans Saints, and the Falcons fell 23-17 at the Superdome, as a result.The Falcons had reached the Saints' 3-yard line on second down but running back Steven Jackson dropped the potential go-ahead touchdown on third down and then on fourth with 43 seconds left, Saints rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro got just enough of his fingertips on Ryan's pass to Tony Gonzalez to keep the 17-year veteran from coming down with the winning reception. Instead, veteran Saints safety Roman Harper came down with the bobbled ball for the game-sealing interception.The loss drops the Falcons to 3-8 against the Saints during Atlanta head coach Mike Smith's tenure and to 2-7 head-to-head against Saints head coach Sean Payton.Blame for this loss will fall on the Falcons' offense and primarily on a revamped offensive line, as the team forced veteran center Todd McClure into retirement in the offseason and cut right tackle Tyson Clabo, a former Pro-Bowler, for salary cap reasons. Against a Saints defense that set a record for allowing the most yards in NFL history in 2012, the Falcons allowed three sacks and Ryan (25-for-38 for 304 yards, two touchdowns and an interception) was under pressure much of the day. More than 17 points is expected from an offense like the Falcons' which is chock full of perennial Pro-Bowl talent.With two long-time defensive standouts (outside linebacker Will Smith and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma) out with injury, first-year Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan found that outside linebacker Junior Galette, a former undrafted free agent in his fourth season, could be an effective pass-rusher in his 3-4 scheme. In all, the Saints officially hit Ryan six times.Both Falcons' offensive tackles struggled in pass protection. Left tackle Sam Baker, who signed a six-year, 41.5 million extension in the offseason, allowed at least one sack and also was called for a costly holding penalty. In the fourth quarter with the Falcons trailing by six, Harry Douglas had caught a 17-yard pass for a first down at the 50 with 10:47 remaining in regulation. However, Baker was called for holding and the Falcons could not convert.Second-year right tackle Lamar Holmes, making his first NFL start, also struggled. Holmes got beat by defensive tackle Akiem Hicks on first down for an eight-yard loss, helping to kill a Falcons' drive that started at the Saints 33-yard line following rookie cornerback Robert Alford's interception. The Falcons ended up punting from New Orleans' 40-yard line with 2:56 to go in the third quarter, trailing 20-17.On Tuesday, the Falcons signed veteran right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, a college teammate of Ryan's at Boston College. Trueblood was inactive on Sunday, as he has yet to learn the team's terminology, but it will be telling if Smith announces an open competition during the week at right tackle.Because of the difficulties in pass-protecting, the Falcons could not utilize the deep ball as a threat. Douglas, the slot receiver, was their most effective weapon in the pass game on the day, as he caught four passes for 93 yards plus the 17-yarder that was negated. Video: NFL on FOX: ATLNO recap Meanwhile, Julio Jones, known for his big-play potential, was limited mostly to the short stuff and 10.9 yards per catch (76 yards on seven catches, including a touchdown). Jones, who was targeted a team-high nine times, turned in perhaps the biggest error for the Falcons on the day in the second quarter. Following a 22-yard catch-and-run, Saints defensive back Malcom Jenkins stripped him of the ball and Harper recovered for New Orleans. The Saints converted the possession into a 25-yard touchdown reception by Marques Colston that erased an early Falcons' 10-0 lead and tied the game with 9:10 to go before halftime.With St. Louis visiting the Georgia Dome on Sunday, the Falcons will have to regroup. Last year Atlanta famously could not convert from the 49ers' 10 yard line with under a minute to play in the NFC Championship Game. That game began with the Falcons' holding a 17-0 lead, making Sundays loss strikingly similar.The loss to New Orleans won't completely dampen the "Super Bowl or Bust" hype that followed the return of Gonzalez from a brief retirement, the signing of Jackson (11 carries, 77 yards and five receptions for 45 yards) and Osi Umenyiora.But if Atlanta can't fix one of the most elemental parts of the game, then all of their offensive weapons -- Roddy White, Jones, Gonzalez, Jackson -- could go for naught and the Falcons might end up feeling all wet.
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