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Falcons try to figure out how to sustain good starts

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) passes against the Arizona Cardinals in the first half last Sunday in Phoenix. (Jennifer Stewart/USA Today Sports)

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) passes against the Arizona Cardinals in the first half last Sunday in Phoenix. (Jennifer Stewart/USA Today Sports)

While the Atlanta Falcons are 2-5, they have answered the bell in each game.

To their credit, they’ve come out swinging before getting knocked out.

After good starts they have not been able to sustain their initial efforts and will face a stiff test against the resurgent Carolina Panthers on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.

The Falcons have outscored the opposition 44-3 in the first quarter before things have started sliding downhill. They’ve been outscored 181-122 in the remaining three quarters.

“We’ve started fast,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “That’s something that we always want to do. We’ve got to be better in the second, third and fourth quarter, obviously.”

The Panthers’ defense has only allowed three points in the first quarter this season as they’ve outscored the opposition 31-5.

“They are playing very good football on the defensive side of the football right now,” Smith said. “That front seven is outstanding. It’s going to be important for us to win that battle.

“We have to win the line of scrimmage. They have guys that can rush. They’ve got a true eight-man rotation up front with their defensive front and two of their three linebackers (Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis) are playing at a Pro Bowl level right not. It’s going to be a challenge for us.”

One of the Falcons’ main offseason projects was to come up with a better defensive plan for the read-option offense.

The defensive staff spent time with the college staffs at Clemson and Vanderbilt as part of that project.

One major problem is that the key players they’ve used in the past to spy on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton are injured. Defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann (out for the season Achilles tendon surgery) and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (foot) will both miss this game.

“It is an element of their offense,” Smith said. “You have to prepare for it and in your preparation you have to account for the quarterback as a runner in that scheme.”

Carolina quarterback Cam Newton rushed 18 times for 202 yards and a touchdown in the two meetings last season.

Running back DeAngelo Williams is the Panthers’ leading rusher with 477 yards on 114 carries and one touchdown. Newton has 50 rushes for 229 yards and three touchdowns. Mike Tolbert has 182 yards on 51 carries and three touchdowns.

“You have to be more disciplined against that style of offense than your typical running game, because everyone has a one-on-one (matchup),” Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. “You’re playing against 11. Usually when the quarterback hands the ball off, you’ve got 11 defensive guys playing 10.”

In addition to seeing Carolina, the Falcons play Seattle next and will see Washington’s Robert Griffin III and San Francisco’s pistol version later this season. Last season, the Falcons contained Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, Griffin and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, but allowed the tight ends to roam free in the secondary.

“You have to be very disciplined because if you have one guy running with the ball free, you can’t afford it,” Nolan said. “That’s really what you have to deal with, if you’re going to play it five snaps or 35 snaps.”

The Falcons cannot afford to have missed tackles against Newton and the Panthers.

“Tackling will be a huge thing in the game,” Nolan said. “Last year, we didn’t (tackle well).”

Dimitroff has own

trade deadline

If you want to make a trade with the Falcons, you better do it around draft time.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff explained the team’s in-season trading philosophy after this season’s trading deadline passed at 4 p.m. on Tuesday.

With the Falcons’ record at 2-5, the trading deadline figured to be a time when the team could attempt to shore up some holes, maybe buttress the offensive line or make a move to stockpile some picks for the future.

“We are confident in our roster and our football team,” Dimitroff said. “We are all aware that we have not gotten the results that we want so far, but I believe in our coaches and players.”

He’s holding out hope for a turnaround with the players on board.

“We owe it to our owner, our fans, our coaches and our players to win as many games as possible, and we believe that we have the pieces to be a good football team,” Dimitroff said. “We know we have dug ourselves a hole, but together we can dig ourselves out and that is what we are focused on.”

Dimitroff has stated that he is philosophically opposed to in-season trades unless the team is in a dire situation.

“As an organization we have three reasons why we do not believe in in-season trades,” Dimitroff said. “There is often times a reason why some players are available via trade in-season, and that does not always fit with our team-building philosophy.

“The second reason has to do with scheme-fit and the ability to pick up the system in time to contribute during that season. Often times, it can take a player a couple of weeks to get comfortable with the system and sometimes even longer. You would have to be completely confident that the player would be able to step in and play right away. Most of the time, that is not the case.

“The final piece in trades involves compensation, and that is something that we are always very mindful of.”

The Falcons never considered trading tight end Tony Gonzalez, according to coach Mike Smith.

McClain ‘gets vertical’ as Falcons punt returner

Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong was pleased with Robert McClain’s debut as the teams’ No. 1 punt returner, but stopped short of naming him the starter for the Carolina game which is set for 1 p.m. Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.

McClain had two returns for 27 yards. On his first return, he gained 27 yards, but Arizona challenged the play.

After a review, it was ruled that he stepped out of bounds after 13 yards.

“I thought he did a nice job,” Armstrong said. “He made some smart decisions.”

The Falcons, hoping to return some pop into their return game this season, opened with Harry Douglas as the top returner. After he moved into the starting lineup because of the injuries at wide receiver, rookie cornerback Robert Alford took over for one game.

Alford was yanked after one game because he had a fumble.

McClain had not handled punts during his three NFL seasons, but was named All-Big East by the media during his final season at Connecticut in 2009. He returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown against Cincinnati that season.

“I thought he got vertical,” Armstrong said. “He got up the field. He looked confident. When the ball was caught, he got up the field and that’s what you want out of your returner. You have to get vertical in this league. You can’t run sideways.”

Quote to note

“I’ve played bad before and I’ll play bad again, but it’s trying to eliminate those games and try to make them very few and very far in between. That’s my goal now, is to put that one behind us and get back to playing the way I can play.” — Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said.

Strategy and personnel

The Falcons’ rushing attack has been mired in the mud.

They rushed 18 times for 18 yards in a win over Tampa Bay and rushed for 27 yards on 14 carries against Arizona.

The blocking up front is clearly the issue as running back Steven Jackson, who returned after a five-week absence, was absolved of any of the blame by coaches. He was met several times in the backfield as the Falcons struggled to seal off the back side of plays and to get some push at the point of attack.

“You’ve got to give your back a chance,” Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “If you’re going to run the football you have to give him good design in the run game.”

The Falcons’ issues are blocking across the board.

“That could not only be the (offensive) line, but it could be the tight end or the fullback,” Koetter said. “It could be the wide receivers at the point of attack on a (defensive back). But we’ve got to give our backs a chance. The second thing is that we can’t get behind because that takes you out of your run game because you’re only getting so many possessions.”

The Falcons could get left tackle Sam Baker back this week and Lamar Holmes could return to right tackle.

PLAYER NOTES

—CB Desmond Trufant, a rookie, leads the team with seven pass breakups, according to the coaches’ film review stats.

—TE Tony Gonzalez has caught 27 passes for 302 yards with two touchdowns in his last three games, including a 12-reception, 146-yard performance against New England on Sept. 29.

—WR Harry Douglas had a career-high 12 catches for 121 yards against the Cardinals. He had seven catches for a career-high 149 yards in the previous game against Tampa Bay on Oct. 20.

—QB Matt Ryan had a career-high 61 passing attempts against Arizona. His passer rating of 47.2 was the fourth-lowest of his career.

INJURY IMPACT

—LT Sam Baker (knee) was limited in practice. He returned to practice last week, but was inactive against the Cardinals.

—MLB Akeem Dent (ankle) was limited in practice, but is expected to play against Carolina.

—OG/C Joe Hawley (elbow) was limited in practice, but is expected to play against Carolina.

—SS William Moore (hip) was limited in practice, but is expected to play against Carolina.

—DT Peria Jerry (toe) was limited in practice, but is expected to play against Carolina.

—DE Osi Umenyiora (knee) was limited in practice, but is expected to play against Carolina.

—RG Garrett Reynolds (knee) was limited in practice, but is expected to play against Carolina.

—WR Roddy White (ankle/hamstring) did not practice. White, who has missed two games after 133 consecutive games played, started running on the side with the trainers last week and is inching closer to a return. Falcons coach Mike Smith told the Charlotte media in a conference call that it’s too early to tell if White will be ready in time to face the Panthers on Sunday.

—RB Jason Snelling (ankle) did not practice.

—LB Stephen Nicholas (thigh) did not practice.

GAME PLAN

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who was bound to throw some interceptions as he attempted a career-high 61 passes, hopes to return to form against the Panthers.

“We don’t want to throw the ball 61 times a game, I can assure you of that,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “That’s not what we’re built to do. We are built to be able to run the ball when we have to.”

Also, Arizona’s defensive front was able to attack Ryan once they held a lead. Ryan was sacked four times and was hit 11 times.

“Pressure is the toughest thing on any quarterback,” offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “It usually doesn’t show up. When I mean pressure, I don’t mean the pressure of a blitz. But the pressure of being behind. There’s the pressure of being hit early in the game.”

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

—Panthers LDE Charles Johnson, who has six sacks on the season, vs. Falcons RT Jeremy Trueblood or Lamar Holmes, who have both struggled this season — Johnson put on a show last season in the first meeting at the Georgia Dome as he destroyed former Falcons right tackle Tyson Clabo. Johnson had 3.5 sacks and six quarterback hits. He’s trying to recover from a groin injury. Holmes could be moved back over to right tackle if Sam Baker can answer the bell at left tackle. After a bumpy start, Holmes is starting to play much better, but needs to get more of a push in the run game.

—Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams, lead the team in rushing with 477 yards, vs. Falcons LB Paul Worrilow, who has 21 tackles according to coaches film review stats — Williams is the shifty kind of back that the Falcons have struggled against. He rushed 23 times for a season-high 120 yards against the New York Giants on Sept. 22. He also has 13 catches for 121 yards. Worrilow, an undrafted rookie free agent from Delaware, is getting extended action with injuries to linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas.

—Panthers WR Steve Smith, who leads the team in receptions vs. Falcons CB Desmond Trufant, who lead the team in pass breakups — Smith, 34, has 32 catches for 335 yards and three touchdowns. He’s as feisty as ever and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. The Falcons held him to three catches for 52 yards in the first meeting last season, but he erupted for seven catches for 109 yards in the second meeting. The Falcons haven’t been shy about leaving the rookie in man-to-man coverage. He went against Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald last week.