FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter hardly had a chance to make it to the media pack before the subject turned to his unit's problems scoring touchdowns in the red zone.
"Let's get right into that," Koetter said, chuckling.
For the Falcons, it may be simultaneously the most perplexing and most fixable problem.
It's perplexing because the Falcons have a good offense until it gets inside the opponent's 20-yard line. It would seem to be fixable because a good offense should be able to score touchdowns more frequently in the red zone.
Or maybe it's not because, as Falcons coach Mike Smith said, there are multiple issues.
"It's not just one area," Smith said. "It's not just one guy." After a 1-for-6 effort against the Patriots on Sunday night, the Falcons are 7-for-18 (39 percent) on touchdown conversions in the red zone. That's the fourth-worst percentage in the NFL, an astonishing mark for a team with Super Bowl aspirations fueled mostly by its ability to score points with a star-studded offense.
It's a major reason the Falcons are 1-3 for the first time under Smith after losing 30-23 to the Patriots.
"Just score three more touchdowns and we are 55 percent in the red zone, and that gets you top 10 in the league every year," Koetter said. "But the bottom line is we are not making the plays. As a coaching staff we have got to give them better plays. The players, whatever we do give them, they've got to make the best of it. That's the bottom line. There's no way around it." Most of the other NFL teams that are poor in the red zone are subpar offensive teams in general. The likes of Arizona, Buffalo, Baltimore, Jacksonville and the New York Jets struggle all over the field.
The Falcons, by contrast, rank fifth in yards per play. They face a dilemma similar to Philadelphia, which ranks first in the league in yards per play, but is tied for second in red-zone touchdown percentage.
The difference is that Eagles are a middling team. The Falcons have some of the top skill players in the league with Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones and Roddy White.
In each of their losses, the Falcons have been tantalizingly close to converting game-winning scores in the red zone.
Against the Saints, Steven Jackson dropped a potential touchdown pass in the end zone on third down. At Miami, Gonzalez broke free on a play-action pass, but Ryan, feeling pressure from the rush, couldn't connect.
White twice broke free for potential touchdowns against the Patriots. Ryan missed him completely on a fourth-down pass in the second quarter, and his pass on the team's final play was a bit behind White, allowing Aqib Talib a chance to make a play on the ball.
Lots of losing NFL teams can say they were a few inches on a few plays from winning more games. Most of them aren't as talented as the Falcons.
"It's frustrating and encouraging at the same time because we have really good players, and they've made those plays in the past," Koetter said. "That's why (Smith) is telling you guys it's an across-the-board issue. This would be a simple thing to solve if it was just this one thing, 'Let's fix it.' But there's more than that." Pass protection has been a consistent problem for the Falcons this season, in the red zone and elsewhere. They haven't run the ball often or particularly efficiently in the red zone. Koetter noted that opponents "are coming up with some creative ways" to limit Gonzalez's chances near the end zone.
But the misfires by Ryan against the Patriots were a new wrinkle because he had been so sharp in the three previous games. Ryan wasn't hurried by the pass rush on either throw.
Ryan took the blame for the missed chances after the game.
"Not all players are like that because not all players are realistic enough or want to be coached if they happen to do something wrong," Koetter said. "Matt is great that way. He's easily the best I've been around as far as how to communicate and how to make progress to get things fixed."
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