Though they’re in the thick of the NFC South race, the Atlanta Falcons know improvement is necessary to be a contender for the conference championship heading into their Monday night game with the New York Jets.
Atlanta’s ugly 34-31 victory at New Orleans last Sunday hid many deficiencies the Falcons must correct in order to be an elite team come playoff time.
“We’re just a fraction off,” Falcons coach Jim Mora added. “But in this league, unlike college or high school or Pop Warner, a fraction of an inch is a big deal.”
The Falcons allowed 456 total yards last Sunday, including 211 rushing on nearly seven yards per carry to a Saints team missing injured leading rusher Deuce McAllister. Had it not been for a pair of penalties—one that negated Todd Peterson’s 41-yard missed field goal in the closing seconds—the Falcons would be trying to regroup for this game with a 3-3 record and facing a two-game deficit to first-place Tampa Bay in the NFC South.
“We had some things go wrong,” linebacker Keith Brooking said. “There was a lot of frustration out there when they’re running the ball like that.
The Falcons are giving up 133.5 rushing yards per contest, almost 30 more than last season when they reached the NFC championship game.
One of the contributing factors is an injury-depleted linebacking corps, which has forced Brooking to an inside position to compensate for the inconsistent play of second-year pro Demorrio Williams and rookie Michael Boley, a fifth-round pick.
Atlanta’s top free agent signing in the offseason, linebacker Ed Hartwell, is out for the season with an Achilles’ injury. Mora, though, is optimistic the current trio will make the proper adjustments as the Falcons prepare for Jets running back Curtis Martin, who had a season-high 148 yards last week.
“I like where we’re headed at linebacker,” Mora insisted. “I like that mix. Certainly, we miss Ed. But we’ve got to keep going. Those three guys (starting), they’re athletic, they’re fast, they’re aggressive. They’re going to start making a lot of big plays.”
The offensive woes for the Jets mounted in last Sunday’s 27-17 loss at Buffalo.
Already forced to coax 42-year-old Vinny Testaverde out of retirement to help at quarterback after injuries to Chad Pennington and backup Jay Fiedler, the Jets lost starting center Kevin Mawae for the season with a torn left triceps. Mawae’s consecutive games streak will end at 177 games, which had been third among active players.
“You get hurt in this game, you know it’s going to happen but I’ve always had the ability to fight through it and overcome it,” Mawae said as he fought back tears Monday. “To not be able to step on the field and be out there, it’s going to hurt more than anything. I took a lot of pride in being out there week in and week out. I’ve never missed a game. This makes it that much harder.”
The loss of Mawae further shuffles an offensive line already in disarray for New York. Jason Fabini and Adrian Jones have flipped tackle spots to help Fabini recover from a knee injury, and left guard Pete Kendall will take Mawae’s spot at center. Kendall, making his first start at center since 2003, is now charged with making all the line calls and providing smooth snaps for Testaverde.
“I don’t think it will be difficult. That’s probably the kiss of death right there,” Kendall said Wednesday. “What quarterbacks are looking for is a consistent snap, wherever that may be. As long as I consistently get it there, we should be OK.”