ARLINGTON, Texas – Falcons coach Mike Smith has never presided over a flogging like this one.
In a major defensive clunker, the Falcons were pummeled 37-21 by the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at sparkling new Cowboys Stadium before 81,521 very satisfied fans.
The Atlanta secondary, already reeling from the lost last week of cornerback Brian Williams to a season-ending knee injury, was sliced and diced by Dallas quarterback Tony Romo (21 for 29 for 311 yards) and wide receiver Miles Austin (six receptions, 171 yards and two touchdowns). And the rest of the team was't so hot either.
Perhaps the Falcons were mesmerized by mammoth scoreboard at the Cowboys' new palace. Or perhaps the team took a big step back. But they dropped to 4-2 and fell two games behind NFC South rival New Orleans, which remained undefeated.
The 37 points were the most yielded under Smith. The previous high was 30 in the playoff loss to Arizona. The team could not rush the pocket, could not cover down the field and could not tackle consistently.
"On the defensive side of the ball, we had some opportunities to stop some plays short of the first down and we did not do that," Smith said. "We need to work more on our tackling. It's something that we pride ourselves in."
The secondary had a difficult time with Austin, a former undrafted free agent (Monmouth College) who in his fourth season is now showing Dallas he is more than a special teams player.
"Miles Austin had a big game against our two corners," Smith said. "Again, it's not just our two corners. We have got to get the quarterback off the spot."
After opening the game with a strong 16-play touchdown drive, the Falcons' offense went into hibernation. Over their next five possessions, the team couldn't mount a serious scoring threat. Three possessions ended in three-and-outs. Two ended with turnovers.
The offensive line, which had kept quarterback Matt Ryan spotless over the last four games, had trouble blocking in both pass protection and in the run game. Ryan threw two interceptions and fumbled twice, losing one of them.
Dallas added a field goal and then took a 10-7 lead for good with 5:50 left in the first half, when Austin ran across the defense for a 59-yard touchdown. They would not trail again.
"It was one of those things where the stars were aligned for them," Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. "It was the best play for the defense that we had."
The Cowboys then added a big touchdown right before the half to swing momentum in their favor to stay.
Romo ducked under a defensive tackle by Jonathan Babineaux and got free. The next instant, he managed to jump out of the arms of defensive end John Abraham and pull himself together just long enough to spot Patrick Crayton in the end zone with six seconds left.
"He was Houdini today," DeCoud said. "He made a lot of great escapes."
The Falcons opened the second half with another long drive. Running back Michael Turner capped a 12-play, 87-yard drive with 2-yard touchdown run to make it 17-14. But the Cowboys continued to pick away at the secondary.
Austin made another big play, this one included a broken tackle on his way to the end zone on a 22-yard touchdown.
"I looked back and I took the wrong angle," Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes said. "I didn't wrap up my tackle."
Grimes wasn't the only Falcons defensive back who had trouble with the emerging Austin.
"He's got good size to him," Grimes said of the 6-foot-3, 214-pound wide-out. "He can create separation at the top of the route with his size. That's what I saw today. He made a couple of plays over the top."
The Cowboys added a 46-yard field goal from Nick Folk before Crayton blew the game open with a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown with 8:38 left, making it 34-14.
"This is a team that has recovered punts extremely well," Smith said. "Those are all alarms that come up that have to be addressed."
The Falcons added a 30-yard touchdown reception by Eric Weems and Dallas added another Folk field goal to close out the scoring.
Facing the second consecutive team coming off a bye week, the challenge might have been too much for the Falcons as they head into pass-happy New Orleans next week with their secondary in disarray.
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