FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – One day after his team surrendered 368 passing yards in a 34-31 overtime loss to the New York Giants to fall to .500 for the first time this season, Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith was blunt in his outlook towards that unit.
"The way we played pass defense yesterday," he said, "we've got to look at everything and everybody."
This is what it has come to for the Falcons, who started the season 4-1 but have last four of their last five games. While catching 10-0 New Orleans to win the NFC South title is almost mathematically impossible, many of the Falcons' goals are still within reach.
After playing four of their last five games on the road against some quality opponents -- while a number of those teams were coming off bye weeks -- the Falcons finally catch a break in the schedule.
They play the next three games at home beginning Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Georgia Dome against a team that, record-wise, is the worst they will have faced this season in the 1-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay's defense ranks 32nd against the run and this week first-year head coach Raheem Morris announced he would take over play calling for the defense, demoting Jim Bates from the defensive coordinator role.
Falcons right tackle Tyson Clabo said in the big picture none of that matters entering Sunday.
"All we care about in this building right is winning football games and going to the playoffs," he said. "We don't care about our schedule. We don't care about what happens with any other team, about who they demote or who they promote. All that matters is winning football games and making the playoffs."
One way the Falcons could get back to winning this week is by running the ball. They are a team that loves work on the ground and, against a defense ranked last in that category, Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey must be salivating.
As much as Jason Snelling played well last week with 76 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, it would aid the Falcons' cause to get back either -- or both --Jerious Norwood (hip) or Michael Turner (ankle) at that position.
Norwood has missed five straight games but was not limited in his participation at practice on Wednesday or Thursday. Turner returned to the practice field on Wednesday for the first time since going out against Carolina on Nov. 15 but was limited then and Thursday.
Turner told the *Atlanta-Journal Constitution* Thursday he thought whether he played would be a game-time decision.
While the overall result against the Giants was not what the Falcons wanted, one of the best things to come out of it was the play of quarterback Matt Ryan and the offense. Ryan did not throw an interception for the first time in seven games and rallied the Falcons from a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter to tie the game.
The offense scored on all four second-half possessions.
"He works too hard and puts himself in the best position to be successful," Falcons veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez said of Ryan. "Sooner or later -- and obviously it happened sooner for us; I was saying that last week -- he did well. It's all confidence. He's a second-year player and once he starts getting that confidence, then you have consistency and with Matt, in that case, it's a damn good thing for us and will help us out for sure in the long run."
Despite their record, the Buccaneers boast a pass defense that ranks 14th in the NFL with Aqib Talib (five interceptions) and 13-year veteran Ronde Barber anchoring the cornerback spots.
It's hard to know how the shake-up in coordinators will affect Sunday's game. Falcons offensive players said they thought the Bucs would revert to what they have done in the past -- former coordinator Monte Kiffin's famous "Tampa Two" two-deep zone.
But Falcons wide receiver Roddy White thought it could be an advantage for the Falcons.
"To learn a new scheme in a couple of days -- three or four days to get ready and play a football game -- it's hard," he said. "They got some new players out there. So it'll be some kind of confusion out there. You know, we do a lot of shifts and motions. It'll be up to them recognize and see what they see and make the calls they have to make."
Regardless, the Falcons praised Tampa Bay's personnel.
"They're some of the best corners in the league," Smith said. "So Barrett Ruud in the middle and Jimmy Wilkerson's got five and a half sacks, so it's a talented football team. You can't talk about records when you get ready to play a game in this league.
"Every week it is a battle."
This week could be tough because of the divisional rivalry and because the Bucs are playing better in recent weeks. Since inserting rookie first-round draft pick Josh Freeman as the starting quarterback, the Bucs are 1-2, defeating Green Bay, now 7-4, by 38-28, and losing by only two the following week at Miami.
Last week, New Orleans blew out the Bucs 38-7.
Freeman started the game with a 95-yard touchdown drive but struggled thereafter.
Morris said the quarterback had "accuracy issues" and also struggled making checks at the line of scrimmage.
"After [the first drive] it was just a hair off," said the mobile Freeman, the 17th overall pick out of Kansas State who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 248 pounds. "It was just one of those days you dread having where you're just literally a hair off and I consider myself an accurate quarterback but guys would come out of their break, I'd throw it with anticipation and it would go right off his fingertips. And it would be in situations like third down."
One of Freeman's favorite targets will be tight end Kellen Winslow, who has 47 catches for 483 yards and five touchdowns. To compare Winslow's production to the Buccanneers' two starting wide receivers, Michael Clayton and Antonio Bryant (who missed three straight games before returning last week), they have a total of 33 catches for 473 yards and three touchdowns.
Who will be defending those receivers at the left cornerback spot is anyone's guess.
The Falcons have used three this season: Brian Williams (out for the season with a knee injury), Brent Grimes and Tye Hill. Smith was asked about the possibility that rookie Christopher Owens, a third-round draft pick, will play that spot this week.
"I've said over the last three or four weeks, Chris is a guy who's done some really good things and he's working hard to learn the system and get an opportunity to get in there," Smith said. "And if an opportunity arises where we can get him in there or we think he merits an opportunity we're going to put him in."
Irrespective of who plays that position, the Falcons need a win to get back on track. They are 4-0 at home and 11-1 during Smith's tenure at the Dome.
"There's not too much more room for a loss," Gonzalez said. "Maybe one, that's it. We've got to win five out of these last six. I'd like to win all six… We just have to cut down on mistakes and make plays when the opportunities present themselves."
SCOUTING REPORT:Key topics on the Falcons-Bucs game * INJURY REPORT:Updates on Atlanta and Tampa Bay injuries and game status * FALCONCAST:J. Mike and Matt preview Sunday's matchup at the Georgia Dome * MULTIMEDIA:Interviews and more video from AtlantaFalcons.com * EXPERT'S TAKE:Thoughts from Judy Battista of *The New York Times *on Falcons, NFL * PREVIEW PACK:More on this weekend's game from the Football Communications staff (PDF) * GAME INFO:Game entertainment and more to get you ready for Falcons-Bucs * WHAT TO WATCH:Some key things to keep in mind as the Falcons take on the Buccaneers * NUMBERS AND NOTES:Notes and stats to get you ready for Sunday * QUOTABLE:Transcript of the Falcons Wednesday open locker room period