FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- After their usual day off, the Falcons (4-4) are back at practice on Wednesday intent on turning around their fortunes in the second half of the season. Execution on third down and run defense figure to be among the most important aspects of their upcoming game against the Cowboys (5-3), and the Falcons will work to perfect those areas.
Today's Early Bird Report includes a look at the Falcons' place in the power rankings as well as a reason for optimism when it comes to the team's third-down struggles.
FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
Week 10 Power rankings: Falcons fall after loss to Panthers
As expected, the Falcons took a tumble in the power rankings after dropping their first division game on the road against the Panthers. You can find our own Wildly Important NFL Power Rankings, here.
"Not many folks thought the Falcons would be playing .500 ball with this schedule. Not after a narrow loss in the Super Bowl, and not with all the young talent this organization has assembled. In fact, some football fans seem to be in complete denial, as I took a little guff after suggesting Atlanta was the definition of a mediocre team on the "NFL Power Rankings" show. With a home game against the Cowboys followed by a trip to Seattle, there is a strong possibility this non-Super Bowl hangover will read 4-6.
"They still don't look right on offense -- see Julio Jones' drop against the Panthers -- and now must face a hot Dallas team this week. Let's just say, they can't afford a loss."
"The Super Bowl runners-up have lost four of five following a 3-0 start. The offense was expected to pick up where it left off last season, but Atlanta is averaging 16.6 points per game the past five games, cracking 20 points just once to make them one of the biggest fallers."
"Matt Ryan and Julio Jones remain just the slightest bit off, which wouldn't be as big of a deal if Devonta Freeman and the running game weren't struggling. It's crunch time before the hangover goes from looming to arrived."
ESPN.com: Ryan yet to regain MVP form as Falcons look to rebound in second half
Now that we've officially hit the halfway point of the Falcons' season, ESPN’s Vaughn McClure reflected on the first half of the year and provided his thoughts on what could occur over the next eight games.
He gave the Falcons' start to the season an "average" grade, saying that injuries, adjusting to new coordinators, turnovers on offense and breakdowns on defense are some of the primary issues the team has faced. McClure's first-half MVP for the Falcons is wide receiver Julio Jones, who has 43 catches for 658 yards and a touchdown thus far.
In looking ahead to the final stretch of the season, McClure says the offense needs to limit the turnovers and begin connecting on the explosive plays they made look so easy last year. Defensively, the Falcons must improve against the run and find a way to force more turnovers.
*Atlanta Journal-Constitution: *Falcons' third-down struggles continue, but there is hope
Although Dan Quinn was pleased with his team's performance inside of the red zone, something the Falcons have paid added attention to in practice recently, he said Monday there is still plenty of room for improvement on third down. The AJC's Alex Makrides detailed the Falcons' third-down struggles, but he did find a couple of stats that should provide some optimism that things can get turned around.
"Last season, the Falcons were in a similar situation midway through the season," Makrides writes. "Not record or standings wise -- the Falcons were 5-3 and first in the NFC South last year -- but in terms of their success on third-down plays. Through the first eight games of 2016, the Falcons converted only 39.6 percent of its third-down opportunities. In the final eight games, that number rose to 46.1 percent.
"It was a similar climb on short-yardage third downs. In the front half of the season the Falcons' short-yardage third-down conversion percentage was 61.1 percent. In the back half, it was 75 percent."
NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Dallas Cowboys
*The Dallas Morning News: *To fully appreciate Sean Lee, you have to view him this way
SportsDay, *The Dallas Morning News' *sports-oriented website, published some of the highlights from an interview that *Sports Illustrated*’s Peter King had with a local radio station in which he discussed the Dallas Cowboys. Among the topics covered was King's feelings on starting linebacker Sean Lee, who is regarded as a very good defender when healthy. He will be on the field when the Cowboys take on the Falcons, and it's clear King thinks very highly of him.
"It's weird, but there aren't a lot of non-quarterbacks who you can say [are their team's MVP]," King said, according to SportsDay. "But you can say it about Sean Lee and that Dallas defense because he's been hurt some and [it's showed] what happens to that defense when their brain center is not there. It reminds me of the Panthers without Luke Kuechly, there's just this yawning gap without him there. It would be like Seattle without Bobby Wagner.
"But this defense really feeds off him. The way you notice Sean Lee, at least in my opinion when I watch the games, is you watch a replay and you say, 'How did he get that half-step heads-up on that end sweep? How did he know that the play-action was just crap? How did he know he's got to watch for the tight end here?'"
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