MIAMI —Mike Smith was very clear about what the Atlanta Falcons had to do following last week's loss to the New England Patriots.
His team's defense had to get off the field on third downs.
Following an 11-of-17 performance against the Patriots (including 5-for-8 in the first half) Smith said the team's performance defending third downs was the "Achilles' heel in the previous season" and was something that they needed to improve immediately.
He and his coaching staff set out this week focused on Friday night's game with the Miami Dolphins — a game in which many of the starters would play the entire first half — with a determination to put together a game plan and an effort that produced different results.
The results weren't just a 16-6 victory, but a dominating effort on defense, against an offense that ranked fourth in the NFL last season in rushing.
But more important than suffocating the Dolphins' run game (46 net yards rushing) was the near shutout Atlanta threw on third downs.
The emphasis and effort all week in practice paid off. The defense worked specifically within the frames of third downs, considering every scenario imaginable and how to defend it. There was also an attitude check.
"I think our coaches do a good job with the scripts," defensive end Jamaal Anderson said following the game. "You have to know what the scenarios are. You have to treat it with a totally different mentality, like 'This is the down to get off the field. This is the money down,' we treat it as. When we do that, it gives us a lot more rest and it gives our offense a chance to make a lot more plays."
Third down was indeed the money down, a down that showcased one of the game's biggest plays en route to their 2-of-12 (1-of-7 in first half) performance.
In the first quarter, defensive end Kroy Biermann continued his strong preseason play, wrangling a sack of Miami quarterback Chad Henne, his third of the exhibition season, on a third down.
The starting defense didn't allow a third-down conversion until 30 seconds before halftime and two plays later safety Erik Coleman intercepted a Henne pass in the end zone to end the drive.
The strong effort on third down, Coleman believes, like Anderson, was a result of a game plan that allowed the Falcons to focus on what they felt the Dolphins would attempt to do.
"Well, this was the third preseason game and we were able to game plan this week, so we were able to study their third-down tendencies and all their tendencies," Coleman said.
The Falcons were the worst team in the NFL last season in allowing third-down conversions (45.3 percent) and after an offseason of talking about the changes in that area of the defense, last week things didn't look much different. Getting off the field is a critical objective for the defense because it returns the ball to the offense.
And no matter the playmakers on defense, the law of averages says it's easier to score on offense than defense.
Even though Atlanta's offense had its struggles at times Thursday night, the opportunities were there because the defense came through for them. The defense capitalized on the money down and returned the ball to their offensive teammates.
Smith was happy with what he saw from his first-team defense in general, especially in the first half when their output limited Miami to 110 yards and just 10 yards on the ground.
But it was the play on third downs that excited him the most, a stark contrast to his attitude last week. The 1-for-7 mark in the first half was something he was happy to talk about.
"When you do that, you're going to limit exposures to your defense," Smith said. "It was the first time we game planned. We had an opportunity to work on some specific things, formations, down-and-distance and I thought the guys went out and executed it very well."