Atlanta Falcons running back Antone Smith (35) could be the future of their running game as various players got their chance to shine against Tampa Bay on Sunday.(USA TODAY Sports: Kim Klement)
FLOWERY BRANCH — With six games to play, the Atlanta Falcons are starting to take aim at next season, embracing the reality of no longer rating as Super Bowl contenders.
At 2-8, the Falcons are eliminated from repeating as NFC South champs and have only a remote chance to reach the postseason as a wild card team.
Atlanta has five consecutive winning seasons and went to the playoffs in four of the past five seasons. Last season ended with them on the 10-yard line at the Georgia Dome against the San Francisco 49ers with a shot to go to the Super Bowl.
“We’ve been fortunate in the past to kind of have been in the mix, even the year we didn’t go to the playoffs (we were) in the mix,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “When you’re not (in the playoff mix), it stinks.”
The Falcons have dropped seven of their past eight games and have been outscored by 74 points in the last four defeats. Over that stretch, Ryan’s play has dipped as he has thrown nine interceptions.
“We have to play our best and hopefully in the future, we are not in this position again,” Ryan said.
Ryan, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2008 draft, said he has been humbled by all of the losses. Before this season, he had never dropped three games in a row.
“(There are) times when it’s going to be humbling and you’ve got to keep your head down and keep going,” Ryan said.
Now, the Falcons, who have six games to play, are looking for positives wherever they can find them. They’ll start shuffling their lineup.
Some of the experimentation started against Tampa Bay when they inserted Joe Hawley at center, shifted Peter Konz to right guard and benched Garrett Reynolds.
As the game got out of hand, undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder went in for Jeremy Trueblood at right tackle, strong safety Zeke Motta went in at free safety for Thomas DeCoud and little-used running back Antone Smith averaged 44 yards on two carries.
Also, backup quarterback Dominique Davis made his NFL debut, but didn’t last long as he was knocked out of the game by a Tampa Bay defender. He played 12 snaps and completed 5 of 7 passes for 34 yards.
The Falcons signed veteran tackle Sean Locklear last week and he could be line for some action.
DeCoud, after going to the Pro Bowl last season as an alternate, has struggled in run support and in coverage. Last season, he had a career-high six interceptions. He doesn’t have any this season.
“We wanted to get (Motta) in there and get him some snaps at the free safety position,” coach Mike Smith said. “I thought he did a pretty good job. Again, it was his first time playing any significant play time the regular season.”
With the Falcons having trouble running the football, Antone Smith has earned some more playing time.
“It’s going to be imperative that we try to get (Antone) incorporated into our offense,” Mike Smith said. “You saw his speed and his ability to make people miss. He’s a guy who should (get) and deserves some touches (based on) what he did on Sunday afternoon.”
Also, defensive tackle Travian Robertson may be in line for some more action. The team’s top three defensive tackles, Corey Peters, Peria Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux, are all in the final year of their contracts.
“We have a limited number of players,” Mike Smith said. “We have to evaluate that and we will. We also have to look at things schematically in what we are asking our players to do.”