GREEN BAY – The Atlanta Falcons are determined to show the resiliency they didn’t a year ago.
Coming off back-to-back, down-to-the-wire losses the past two weeks, the 4-3 Falcons host the 4-2 Packers at the Georgia Dome on Sunday looking to reverse their current trend before it becomes a full-blown losing skid.
“That’s when a lot of your character is tested, when you’re under duress,” second-year Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said in a conference call with Green Bay media. “We’ve spent a lot of time developing mental toughness.”
Quinn went on to explain that a team of “special forces soldiers” visited the Falcons for an entire week in the offseason for that purpose.
It was in part a response to 2015, when after a 6-1 start, the Falcons lost six straight games, four of them by four points or less.
This year, the Falcons won four straight after an opening defeat and were the talk of the NFL at 4-1. They had beaten Super Bowl 50 participants Carolina and Denver in consecutive weeks.
Then, as it so easily can in this league, things changed. A 26-24 loss at Seattle was particularly frustrating because Atlanta felt a pass interference flag should have been thrown on the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman on a deep ball to Julio Jones late in the game. The penalty yardage would have put the Falcons on the edge of game-winning field-goal range.
Another gut punch came last week, when Atlanta blew a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead at home, got stuffed on fourth-and-1 in overtime, and fell 33-30 to the Chargers.
Quinn insists his team’s psyche isn’t damaged by the tough defeats.
“You have to rely on each week, new canvas, new paint, new approach,” he said. “We don’t like it, but we are ready to take on the challenge, and it’s on to the next.”
Having the league’s No. 1 offense in total yards and points, led by QB Matt Ryan and his NFC-best 113.6 passer rating, certainly helps. The Falcons might be without versatile running back Tevin Coleman (234 rushing yards, five TDs; 330 receiving yards, 1 TD) this week due to injury, but the league’s top receiver, Julio Jones, is healthy and well.
Jones (40 catches, 830 yards, 4 TDs) can be downright dominant at times, such as during a 12-catch, 300-yard effort vs. Carolina, but the Falcons also scored 45 points against New Orleans in Week 3 when Jones had just one catch for 16 yards.
“You see safety help in positions you normally wouldn’t see it,” Ryan said of defenses against Jones. “You see cloud coverage, a corner and a safety over the top of him a lot.”
That’s where the work of Coleman, fellow running back Devonta Freeman (508 rushing yards, 169 receiving yards, three total TDs), plus No. 2 receiver Mohamed Sanu (23 catches, 258 yards, 2 TDs) and tight end Jacob Tamme (20-191-3) come in.
“If they’re going to make a concerted effort to say it’s not going to go to this player, there are some man-to-man opportunities with no help going elsewhere,” Quinn said. “We do look for unconventional looks or one we can try to take advantage of another way.”
Atlanta’s defense is not where Quinn, the former defensive coordinator for Seattle’s back-to-back Super Bowl teams, wants it to be. Ranked 31st against the pass and 27th in points allowed, the Falcons have relied on opportunism, with six interceptions, including two returned for scores.
A sore spot in recent years, the pass rush may be starting to come around, with 11 sacks over the last three games. Second-year pro Vic Beasley, a first-round pick in 2015, leads the way with 6 ½ sacks.
“He’s really coming on,” Quinn said. “The speed factor with him, hauling off the ball, really jumps out. We knew that was there.”
Quinn and his players also believe a bounce-back ability is there, which will be needed to stay on top of the NFC South.
“We’re still a work in progress. We’re still getting better,” Ryan said. “We need to find ways to finish games a little bit better than we have up to this point.”