Falcons avoid turnovers during hot start

Sometimes, for all the X's and O's, football really is a simple game.

Play steadily on offense and defense and make your opponent earn everything it gets, and you have a good chance of winning more times than not.

It's a mindset the Falcons (9-2) have lived as well as any NFL team this season, and it's why they have been one of the more consistent teams.

The stat that may embody that approach the most is turnovers, where the Falcons have an NFC-low 10 and have gone a franchise-record four consecutive games without one.

Not fumbling or throwing interceptions seems obvious, but it's far easier said than done in the NFL. Executing that plan has been one of the biggest factors in the Falcons' success.

"Yeah, that's the single most important stat in football," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "If you can win the turnover battle, you are going to win the game usually. We stress that. There is no doubt about it. That's our No. 1 goal going into each game. No matter what, that's at the top of the list because that ball is precious."

While it's easy to know that during a game, it's the work in the spring and the summer and the week leading to a game that results in a mistake-free game.

A stretch of no turnovers while forcing six in the past four games has moved the Falcons to second in the NFL in turnover margin at plus-11.

Getting to that point doesn't happen overnight, and it's a focus at each practice.

"Think ball security is what you do during the week, whether if it be ball carries, receivers or whoever, making sure we secure the football," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "As a quarterback, it's making sure I make good decisions. Making sure I know what we've got in. [Knowing] when to take some chances and when not to. Then when it comes to Sunday, it's going out there and cutting loose, playing and being aggressive and just having those ball security techniques fall into place."

The quarterback may be the most visible of the players on offense who are keeping the ball away from the opponent; it's something that has to start with him and trickle down to everyone around him.

“Ball security is paramount, and ... we’ve got very good security with our runners," coach Mike Smith said. "Our running backs and receivers after they’re catching the ball, and I think that our quarterback has made some very good decisions in terms of his progressions and not throwing the ball into coverage. That’s just a natural progression that the experienced quarterbacks go through."

Ryan has been a big part of that, throwing only five interceptions after tossing 14 last season. Joining him has been running back Michael Turner, who hasn't fumbled in his 223 carries and 11 receptions this season. He lost two fumbles each of his first two seasons with the Falcons.

The offense's collective ability to put together seasons where they all take care of the ball has contributed to them maintaining this turnover rate so far.

"Having a good quarterback that takes care of the ball [helps]," wide receiver Roddy White said. "He's doing an excellent job. [Turner] is not putting it on the ground. [Fullback Jason Snelling] is not putting it on the ground. [Michael] Jenkins and all of the other receivers, [Brian Finneran] and Harry [Douglas], are catching balls and not getting them knocked out. They are not fumbling the ball."

All the work to take care of the ball has been even more important this season, when the Falcons played many close games. Seven of the Falcons' 11 games have been decided by seven or fewer points, including four of the past five. In all four of those, the Falcons needed a score, a defensive stop, or both, in the final five minutes in order to win.

When games come down to a margin that small, every mistake is magnified, and winning the turnover battle can be the main difference between a win and a loss.

"It's been huge, with so many games in the NFL are close," Ryan said. "When you look at the stats and look at when teams are plus-2 or plus-3, it's almost a given that you're going to win. When you're minus, it's almost a given that you're going to lose. Ball security is extremely important. Possession of the ball is extremely important."