FALCONS FLIGHT: Offense sees red zone improvement

After the Falcons beat the Tennessee Titans in November, head coach Mike Smith knew his team had beaten a quality NFL team. He also knew then that for the Falcons to reach the postseason and win their first playoff game in the Smith-Dimitroff era, the Falcons would have to improve their performance inside the red zone.

Sunday, the Falcons (10-6) showed very early the red zone improvement Smith was looking for in the first half of a 45-24 blowout win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12) at the Georgia Dome. While the first two quarters looked like the Falcons were playing the role of the varsity squad and the Buccaneers were cast as hapless freshmen sacrificed in a scrimmage game, remember that this Tampa Bay team was good enough to beat the playoff-bound Falcons and the NFC champion New Orleans Saints.

Over the past two games – a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 15 and Monday’s loss at New Orleans – the Falcons scored only two touchdowns in eight visits inside the other guys’ twenty yard line, but Sunday, being in the red zone felt just like home.

Quarterback Matt Ryan acknowledged that the Falcons have recently been focusing on scoring touchdowns when they get deep in enemy territory in his postgame press conference. “The last half of the season we’ve moved the ball really effectively between the 20 [yard lines]. Some weeks we’ve been good in the red zone. Some weeks, we haven’t. The attention to detail inside the 25 [yard line] gets heightened because the field shrinks, and you have to be on top of your game.” Mission accomplished on Sunday night.

Rookie running back Jacquizz Rodgers scored his first career touchdown on the game’s opening drive. Before the Rodgers scoring plunge, Ryan completed a short pass, and running back Michael Turner carried the ball three times, once for a first down to extend the drive.

On the Falcons second possession, Ryan completed another short pass to rookie wide receiver Julio Jones. Jones then muscled past arm tacklers and sprinted in for a touchdown.

In their next trip deep into Buccaneer territory, the Falcons gave Tampa Bay a heavy dose of Michael Turner for a belated Christmas gift. Turner carried the ball six consecutive times, trudging for just 16 yards, but Turner’s final carry of the drive from the one yard line gave the Falcons their third touchdown in their first three drives inside Tampa Bay’s red zone. Smith gladly summed up the team’s big offensive start afterwards, “We were efficient in everything we did in the first half.”

Turner motivated the offensive line as the team neared the Buccaneers end zone. With a rushing touchdown, he would take sole possession of the franchise record for rushing scores. Turner told the big guys up front, “This is for the record. Lock this up. This is an important touchdown. And, they got fired up, got juiced up and just knocked everybody off the ball.”

The offensive line apparently stayed motivated on the next drive as well. Turner bounced off the left side of the offensive line then bustled his way 81 yards down the sideline for his fiftieth rushing touchdown in an Atlanta uniform.

The Falcons met a decidedly inferior opponent, albeit a division rival in Week 17, and won at home. More importantly, they scored on their first four offensive possessions. Most important, they scored touchdowns on three red zone trips when the game’s intensity was at its highest point. For a victory on the road in the playoffs, the Falcons will need to continue their efficiency inside their opponents’ red zone.

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