Monday Game Face
## A day-after look at the Falcons' loss to the Steelers
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. —Earlier this week when Falcons head coach Mike Smith was asked about Dick LeBeau's success as a defensive coordinator in the league he laughed and said the 73-year-old coach looks about 52.
He added he wished he looked that way two years ago.
If Smith felt he looked older than his 51 years suggests, after Sunday's heartbreaking loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers he might be feeling like he aged even more.
Smith watched his team fight and claw through a tough road environment at Heinz Field with thousands of yellow towels waving furiously. He saw his defense suffocate an offense heavy on the run and his offense get suffocated despite finding some openings in passing lanes sporadically.
In short, he watched his team scratch through a game only to come up short in the toughest of ways.
A frustrated Smith bluntly said on AtlantaFalcons.com's First Take following the game that his team soured their 60-minute effort with poor play in the overtime period.
The winners of the coin toss, the Falcons elected to have the ball and attempt to score to finish the game. They appeared to move the ball well and on a key third-down conversion for 9 yards to running back Jason Snelling, left tackle Sam Baker was whistled for holding and things unraveled.
The ensuing third-and-17 pass was incomplete and a punt from Michael Koenen gave Pittsburgh great field position.
The Falcons faithful half expected the Atlanta defense to pull together and hold back the Steelers once again, but they bent but didn't break one too many times Sunday.
On the first play running back Rashard Mendenhall broke free for a 50-yard run that was the game-ender.
Smith described it as a breakdown in all three phases as the game.
"It was hard-fought for the first 60 minutes," Smith said. "I don't think it was really hard-fought in overtime. In all three phases, we didn't do the things that are characteristic of what our football team is all about. ... I did think that the guys fought hard, but we made all kinds of mistakes in overtime and we've definitely got some things to work on."
When points are at a premium, coaches begin playing the field position chess game, and Atlanta was managing to do the right things in that regard for the first 60 minutes. Koenen had an outstanding game before his final punt, booming four punts inside the 20-yard line and three inside the 10.
But like so many mistakes for Atlanta on Sunday, his final one was the most costly.
It'd be easy to say the Falcons have little to be ashamed of. They gave a gutsy performance in hostile territory, but the mood in the locker room wasn't one of pride.
Despite the feelings of horror and the discussions of it, everyone in Atlanta red and black knows there will be games like Sunday's. On this Sunday, the Falcons didn't make the final play. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton likened it to a roller coaster ride, only this time it was he and his teammates losing their lunch instead of the other way around.
"That's what football's all about," Lofton said. "But when you're down, that's when you've got to come through and make a big play and get off the field and get the ball back to the offense, and we didn't do that (Sunday)."
Behind Enemy Lines:*Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's *Gene Collier's proclamation in his Sunday morning column proved to be correct.
"Defense, not Dixon, controls fate of game" Collier wrote, and while that wasn't a surprise, it was surprising to see how the return of two players, safety Troy Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith, could make such a difference on a Steelers defense that looked like anything but its normal self last season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers' defense is back and the beauty of Sunday's loss — if anyone is searching for a silver lining — is the Falcons hung in there with them all day. Yes, LeBeau and the Steelers clearly had a game plan to stop tight end Tony Gonzalez and running back Michael Turner, but wide receiver Roddy White got his, and worked all day for it.
White finished with 13 catches for 111 yards and while he never found the end zone, he showed some defense-like toughness.
Anyone that recorded the game should fast forward to just before the four-minute mark in the fourth quarter. There, you'll see a reception by White that demonstrates the 28-year-old wideout's commitment to winning. Not only did he make a tough grab, but he stretched and crawled over air to get the first down.
He came up 1 yard short, but White's commitment to making quarterback Matt Ryan a Pro Bowler like himself was evident after just Week 1.
But despite White's best efforts, the Steelers' D came through and kept Atlanta out of the end zone, making Collier look like a smart man. Collier also gets points for pointing out the obvious oddness of Dixon spending the week as one of the hottest topics in football, despite being listed as No. 3 on the Pittsburgh depth chart.
From the FanCast:"So we got beat by a third-string quarterback?" someone asked in Sunday's AF.com Falcons FanCast.
OK, not exactly.
Every quarterback has a good moment and that is how to best describe the third-quarter 52-yard pass completion to wideout Mike Wallace.
The only true bright moment for Dixon was in the fourth quarter when he connected with wide receiver Hines Ward on back-to-back plays of 20-plus yards.
The Falcons said after the game that they shouldn't have given up those plays, especially the final one, but Dennis Dixon hardly made the plays to beat Atlanta.
Instead, Pittsburgh's defense reared its ugly head and kept Atlanta out of the end zone, paving the way for the Mendenhall walk-off run. It was only a matter of time before the game ended in favor of one of the teams in that manner.
Pivotal Play:Conventional wisdom says Mendenhall's run is the play of the game, but that's if you're looking at it through yellow-tinted glasses.
For Atlanta, the game's pivotal play is still a mistake, but one of a different nature.
Tied at nine with 1:45 left in the game, the Atlanta offense got the ball one last time and visions of a Falcons victory danced in many fans' heads. On the first play, however, a Ryan pass was intercepted by Pittsburgh's everywhere man, Polamalu.
"Troy made a really good play," said Ryan. "It felt like I had enough of a window to get to the outside. I thought I made a pretty good throw, but against him, you have to be perfect. He made the play in that situation and I didn't. It's something that, in order to win those types of games when it's tight, you have to make those type of plays."
Atlanta caught a break when Steelers kicker Jeff Reed missed a 40-yard field goal four plays later, but the writing almost seemed on the wall.
It wasn't going to be Atlanta's day.
Statistically Speaking:Earlier this week, Gonzalez said he never would have imagined when he entered the league he'd be talking about a 1,000th catch.
He probably never imagined he'd have to do it twice.
After catching a pass early in the third quarter, Gonzalez was called back for stepping out of bounds. That catch was his 1,000th, but he would have to do it over.
Two plays later, he got it right, catching a 20-yard completion for the milestone. The tight end's 1,000th catch places him seventh all time on the reception list and he became the first tight end in league history to record 1,000.
That's A Wrap:Atlanta won't dwell on the heartbreak of this loss long. Following a review session today and players' day off on Tuesday, they'll begin game planning for the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday's home-opening matchup.
The Cardinals, winners of a Week 1 debut against the St. Louis Rams, come to the Georgia Dome on Sunday, and Atlanta knows it will have to put everything about Sunday's loss in the past.
Ryan said it best following the game: Put it behind you and move on.
"It was a hard-fought game (Sunday)," the quarterback said. "A lot of credit to the Steelers. They made plays when they needed to and we didn't. So in a certain sense, frustrating, but with that said, our objective now has to be getting back to work. It's one game; get back to work and improve on some of the things that we need to improve on and do everything we can to get a win next week."