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Ryan, Smith know more work lies ahead


Nonetheless, the team's 9-7 mark in Smith's second season earned the franchise's first back-to-back winning seasons -- a major milestone -- even if it fell short of the coach's own goal of returning to the postseason.

Next Monday Smith and General Manager Thomas Dimitroff will address the media to dissect the team's '09 performance in greater detail, so Smith did not want to look back too much.

However, he did allow himself at times to reflect on Year Two of his tenure and the growth of himself as a coach as well as that of the team.

He said in the final meeting with players the theme was "we didn't get what we set out to do."

"You get what you earn in this league," he said. "We were 9-7. That didn't give us an opportunity to play on into the tournament. We all, starting with me, have got to be better and do things better. I told them, 'Hey, this is my second year as a head coach, I made a lot of mistakes.' They made a lot of mistakes. We've got to make sure we evaluate everything we do from top to bottom in terms of how we can get better."

What did Smith learn this season that will make him a better coach come next season?

"I think there's a lot of things," he said. "I think every game I critique myself. Some of the things in time management, some of the things in strategy, because I think as a head coach that's what you have to do. In terms of preparation, how we schedule things, how we do things. I think I continue to get a better feel of how we want to practice. Knowing when guys need to get rest.

"This is a very, very long season. This is a marathon. I think it's something I will and I have gotten better at, but I think it's something we can improve upon."

That's big picture stuff. Getting down to brass tacks, it's arguable the defense was good enough to get into the playoffs. In terms of scoring, the unit ranked 14th in the NFL in allowing 20.3 points per game -- the same amount that the NFC West Champion Arizona Cardinals (10-6) allowed.

The defense certainly took its lumps, as it allowed New England to control the clock for nearly 40 minutes in Week 3 and allowed Dallas to post 37 points and New Orleans to put up 35 in consecutive losses in Weeks 7 and 8. And while the defense ranked 21st overall, it finished 10th against the run and improved as the season ended, allowing only 20 points in the final three games.

Smith said he was "very proud of the way our defense played the run through the second half."

"When we played in New England, we didn't handle the run game very, very well," he said. "We got a very good understanding and we fit the run much better."

But by the last quarter of the season, he said, the Falcons played run defense "as well as anyone in the league."

The team's top two draft picks, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, were both lost to injury for the season. Jerry, a starter, went down in Week 2. Starting left cornerback Brian Williams was lost for the season in Week 6 and starting left cornerback Chris Houston was lost for the final four games.

The Falcons finished with rookie Christopher Owens starting on the right side -- the team's fourth starter at that spot -- and third-year man Brent Grimes on the left.

Smith praised the play of Owens and Grimes over the last four games and said it "bodes well in the future, especially Chris Owens."

While the offense might not have lost as many man games to starters as the defense, it lost its two most important players at the most critical juncture of the season -- quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner for games in Weeks 13 and 14 against Philadelphia and New Orleans. Wins in those games would have put the Falcons in the playoffs, but the Falcons lost both.

Turner, third in the MVP balloting last year after rushing for 1,699 yards, carried the ball only 13 times for 40 yards over the final seven games -- a factor the Falcons never would have counted on when hopes were so high in the preseason. And effective run-blocker Harvey Dahl, the starting right guard, missed the final five games, including both the Eagles and Saints games, and starting left tackle Sam Baker missed the Eagles game.

The Falcons, who had high expectations in terms of having a high-powered offense, finished 13th in scoring at 22.7 points per game, and 16th in total yards.

Ryan finished with 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, but he had 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions after a Week 10 loss at Carolina.

"I don't think disappointing," Ryan said of the offense's performance. "We have very high expectations for ourselves when we go out on to the field and do we feel like we could've played better? Certainly. Regardless of what you do, you always think you can do better and that's why you got to like the guys we have. Everybody's motivated to continue to get better.

"I think everybody's hungry to perform better next year, but with that said I thought we did some things really well this year and like the pieces we have, like the guys we have."

Even with his own midseason stumbles -- he threw 10 interceptions over a five-game span -- Ryan still improved over his ratio of 16 touchdowns to 11 interceptions in his break-out Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign in '08.

"I felt like I improved in a lot of different areas," he said.

With the season complete, Smith said he wanted players and coaches alike to "unplug" and take four to six weeks of rest, mental and physical.

Looking forward a bit, he said he was encouraged by the play of the team's rookies down the stretch -- Owens, defensive tackle Vance Walker, defensive end Lawrence Sidbury, linebacker Spencer Adkins and offensive lineman Garrett Reynolds -- and also included second-year players Ryan, linebacker Curtis Lofton, who finished tied for sixth in the NFL in tackles, Baker, who played through numerous injuries, and defensive back Chevis Jackson.

Ryan said the biggest thing he learned this season was an understanding of his role on the team. On the field, he said he learned to take care of the ball better -- over his final five games, he had eight touchdowns to two interceptions.

"Hopefully, we can keep the pieces of the puzzle in place," Ryan said. "I trust in the front office to continue to make the right moves."

That's in terms of personnel.

On the field, Ryan spoke of a different goal.

"I think one of the things we need to improve this coming season," he said, "is to finish -- to finish better than we did this year."

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