In order to have a record of 9-2 in the NFL a team must do a lot of things right. That is exactly what the Atlanta Falcons have done in route to owning the best record in the NFL up to this point in the season.
They play smart football. The Falcons are the least penalized team in the league. They have only been flagged 53 times with only 42 of those being accepted.
They sustain drives. Atlanta is second only to New Orleans in converting third downs. They are 81-of-170 on third down, which works out to 48 percent.
But perhaps even more important than those numbers is the fact that Atlanta just doesn’t turn the football over. They are tied for second in the league with a plus-11 turnover margin and are currently on a four-game streak without committing a turnover.
Falcons wide receiver Roddy White, who ranks second in the league with 1,066 receiving yards, explains why his team has had so much success protecting the football.
“Matt (Ryan) is just doing a good job of taking care of the ball,” said White. “He is not getting in bad situations. He’s keeping the ball close to him, and not just giving it away to defenses. That is a big key in this league to winning, just not turning over the ball and keeping it to yourself. When you don’t turn over the ball you got a chance to win in this league. The backs and receivers are doing a good job of putting it away and not putting it on the ground.”
After watching tape on the Falcons, Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud shares similar thoughts and says it all boils down to Ryan.
“A lot of it goes back to the trigger guy. When your quarterback is making all the right reads and all the right throws, it’s tough to force turnovers,” said Ruud. “They have a good coordinator and good game plan and they are playing well. So it just comes down to execution more than anything.”
Ryan is playing at a Pro Bowl level right now and is a major reason for the Falcons great play as of late. The 2008 first-round pick is completing 64.7 percent of his passes for 2,715 yards with 19 touchdowns and only five interceptions. He also does not get pressured a lot. Ryan has only been sacked 17 times in 11 games.
“He’s doesn’t get sacked a lot and it’d be fun to get to him, but the turnovers are big,” said rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. “It’s our philosophy is score and get the ball back so what we're going to try to do is get the ball back to give our offense a chance. Winning the turnover margin is going to be big in winning this game.”
The Falcons are only the 12th team ever to go four straight games without a turnover. But they could be the first team in NFL history do it in five consecutive games if they can make it through the game against Tampa Bay without turning over the football. Because they don’t give their opponents many extra possessions, head coach Raheem Morris stressed to his team the importance of getting the ball back for his young quarterback - Josh Freeman - to work his magic.
“I think that emphasis is something that you have to stress each and every week no matter who you’re playing,” said Morris. “But in particular you have to mention the fact that these guys are tops in the NFL on third downs so it’s not just the turnovers. It’s actually getting off the field against these guys on defense. You have to get the ball into Freeman’s hands for our offense and let those guys try to control the ball to keep Matt Ryan and that dangerous offense off the field.
“If you can go out there and generate a few turnovers you will have a chance, but more importantly if you can get off on third down and not allow those guys to set up scoring drives then you have a better chance. So the emphasis is definitely there whether it be turnovers or on third downs.”
While Ruud and the defense may be working a little harder to force a turnover or two on Sunday, he knows that they must execute just as well as the Falcons do on offense in order to do so.
“You can’t draw anything up to create turnovers,” said Ruud. “You have to execute well and you have to have a little bit of a mindset of trying to punch the ball out and get it out. When their quarterback excecutes well, it is really, really hard to get turnovers on them and that is the way they are playing.”