By GEORGE HENRY
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Coach Dan Quinn knows the Atlanta Falcons’ season is at a tipping point.
Riding a three-game losing streak, the Falcons trail five teams for the second NFC wild-card spot. Atlanta (4-7) has almost no margin for error as it prepares to host Baltimore (6-5).
Quinn gave his team a primer Monday on the biggest areas of concern in practice this week. First is turnover margin. The defense has one fumble recovery all season. No team has fewer. The offense had four giveaways in a blowout loss at New Orleans, three in the red zone.
Quinn’s other big issues are in the run game. With 26 net yards against the Saints, Atlanta had not performed that poorly since gaining 17 in a loss at San Francisco in 2015.
It’s no better on the defensive side. The Falcons have been gouged by four premier backs over the last three weeks, with Nick Chubb, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combining for 439 yards and two touchdowns.
“It’s for the run offense to provide that balance that we need to make the play-action go and to add to the toughness that we want, and then defensively we stack the box, and the times that we’ve gotten into trouble is when we’ve lost gap control,” Quinn said. “It’s not a question of being stout enough or being strong enough. It’s when we’ve gotten out of our gap. One guy does it wrong and there’s not another guy there to knock it over.”
There are other trouble spots, too. Matt Ryan leads the NFL in passing yards but he’s been sacked 33 times, fifth most in the league. During the three-game skid, he’s been hit 38 times, including 14 sacks.
Safety Damontae Kazee’s six interceptions lead the league, but the Falcons are tied for 19th with nine overall. Cornerback Desmond Trufant, once considered to be the team’s best defender, blamed himself last week for having five dropped picks this season. He has yet to get an interception.
Fixing the ground attack is a tough assignment this week with Baltimore leading the NFL in run defense. Quinn is considering a change at guard, where starters Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco were lost to season-ending injuries.
Zane Beadles, signed a month ago to provide depth, could replace either Wes Schweitzer or Ben Garland as a starting guard, but Quinn said the team won’t address the topic until Sunday.
With the Falcons’ biggest salary commitment to Ryan for $100 million guaranteed, fixing the line is imperative to Quinn.
“He’s holding up well physically,” Quinn said. “He’s as tough as they come. He has no flinch to him, but it’s more than we would like, for sure, especially in the last game to have the amount of sacks and quarterback hits that we did.”
Quinn suggested the interior line weren’t entirely to blame against the Saints as Ryan was sacked six times and hit 13 others on 53 dropbacks. It’s hard to keep him upright when the run game is struggling so much.
“If we can get that going like we’re capable of, I think some of those hits come off,” Quinn said. “That’s why we don’t have the amount of throws and dropbacks that we had in some of the games. I think that’s the biggest factor on how we can take some hits off.”
The defense faces a challenge against mobile quarterback Lamar Jackson and running back Gus Edwards, who over the last two weeks became the first Baltimore rookie since Jamal Lewis in 2000 with consecutive 100-yard games.
Defensive end Vic Beasley, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and linebacker Deion Jones each declined interview requests with reporters on Monday. Reserve end Brooks Reed found hope in the Falcons’ ability to slow Saquon Barkley and Adrian Peterson in Weeks 7 and 9.
“We’re always looking to improve tackling and just being detailed in our fits,” Reed said. “Just getting down to more basic stuff. That always seems to kind of bring us back in.”