Over the first two weeks of the season, the Falcons, for all of their other faults, were actually a team that did a good job converting on third downs.
Against the Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys, the offense converted a combined 15 of 31 third-down chances, good for a 48.3 percent conversion rate. That kind of number will put a team in the top 10 of that category.
However, the past two weeks have been quite different.
Against the Chicago Bears, the Falcons converted only four of 13 third-down opportunities. On Monday against the Green Bay Packers, the Falcons converted only three of 12 plays on third down. Those two performances (a 28 percent rate) dropped the four-game average to 39.3 percent, which ranks 22nd in the NFL.
Generally speaking, Koetter said these kind of problems usually are a result in being in too many third-and-long situations. In the Falcons' case, the problem has been converting third-and-medium.
On third-and-6 -- the most common third-down situation for the Falcons thus far -- the Falcons are picking up first downs 40 percent of the time. On third-and-5, that number rises slightly to 45.4 percent.
Most perplexing is third-and-4, with the Falcons having yet to pick up a first down, though they have had only four opportunities. Two of those third-and-4 plays resulted in sacks.
Koetter said the offense’s lack of execution played a role in the recent third-down woes.
“We can complete passes, that’s what we can do to improve,” Koetter said. “Two weeks ago we were top 10 in the NFL in third down. We had two poor weeks back-to-back that have dropped us. Usually when you drop that like it’s because you have a lot of third-and-10-pluses. That’s not the case at all. We’ve struggled at third-and-2-to-5. Normally those are the ones you’re going to get at a 50-plus percent clip.”
Koetter was asked if the recent struggles on third down caused the coaching staff to emphasize this area even more in practice this week. Koetter noted that because of the short week from the Monday night game, that third-down work was split into practices both Wednesday and Thursday.
But considering the team’s 0-4 record, everyone involved understood third down is an area that must improve.
“These guys are pros,” Koetter said. "They get it when we show them the numbers and we show them our percentages. You make it sound like we take them out on the field and scream at them on third-and-medium, and that doesn’t usually work. They understand; we’ve shown them. We tried to put together the best plan for third-and-medium that we can.
“There are other things that go into that, like how much you’re going to go for it on fourth down. The bottom line is we have to do better. There’s no getting around that. On third-and-medium you’ve got to be over 50 percent, and we aren’t right now.”
Quarterback Matt Ryan wasn’t particularly happy about the Falcons' third-down performance against Green Bay. Facing a third-and-6 on the opening two drives of the game, Ryan was unable to connect with receiver Calvin Ridley on either of those passing attempts.
Ryan dropped back to throw on 10 third-down attempts against the Packers and picked up only two first downs.
“We need to do a better job of converting on our third-down opportunities to keep ourselves on the field,” Ryan said. “There are a lot of things that go into that. We have to be more efficient on first and second downs to give ourselves better looks on third down, but we have to be better on third down.”
Said Koetter: “It’s definitely something we’ve looked at hard this week, that third-and-medium. We’ve got to do much better.”
For the season, the Falcons rank eighth in the NFL in total offense (396 yards per game) and fifth in passing offense (294.3). After finishing 30th a year ago, the Falcons are up to 22nd in rushing through four games, at 101.8 yards per game. Despite having a top-10 total offense through the first quarter of the season, the Falcons are tied for 14th in scoring offense, at 26.5 points per game. That average obviously was reduced by Monday’s 30-16 loss to Green Bay.
It’s worth noting that the Carolina Panthers, the Falcons' opponent Sunday, rank 19th in scoring defense at 25.5 points allowed per game.
Asked to assess the state of the Falcons' offense after four games, Koetter kept it vague by stressing there are numerous areas to improve.
“Obviously it’s a team game. We’re 0-4,” Koetter said. “There are so many things we can do better. It’s been something different in every game. Whatever the game presents, you’ve got to do what it takes to win in that game. We haven’t been able to put that together as a team or an offense yet. When you’re 0-4, you have to find a way to get one more point than the other guys.”
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