Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is not ready to push the red-zone panic button one week into the 2018 season.
“At the end of the day, it’s ‘stay the course,’ ” Sarkisian said.
But in the season-opening 18-12 loss to the Eagles on Sept. 6, the Falcons were 1-for-5 inside the opposition’s 20-yard line. In the last meeting with the Panthers, a 22-10 win Dec. 31, the Falcons were 1-for-5 in the red zone and needed five Matt Bryant field goals to wrap up a playoff berth.
The Falcons (0-1) are set to face the Panthers (1-0) in the home opener at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Sarkisian’s calls against the Eagles were criticized nationally. NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, thought the Falcons could flood some of the Eagles’ zone with multiple receivers.
He also knocked the Falcons’ decision to run the same play three times in a row and noted that receivers’ routes were not crisp and lacked the attention to detail that he saw from the 2016 offense under former coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
“I don’t pay much attention to that stuff,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “Hindsight is 20/20. Obviously, we would have love to have done something different to come away with a different result. But the hard part is, you have to have the protection to be able to do it.”
Sarkisian took umbrage with Warner’s critique.
“It was bracket coverage,” Sarkisian said. “They were doubling No. 3 on the right-hand side and No. 2 on the left-hand side. It wasn’t a zone defense. I’m sorry Kurt Warner, Coach.”
Over the offseason, the Falcons promised some changes to their red-zone attack.
“I believe that the work that we put in is going to pay off for us as we move forward,” Ryan said. “I believe that our execution is going to be better the next time that we are down there.
“We’ll continue to hammer away at it on the practice field and have the belief that the job is going to get done when we get those opportunities again.”
The Falcons said they added some new wrinkles to the red-zone attack. But the end of the Eagles’ game looking strikingly similar to the end of the previous year’s playoffs loss to the Eagles with the Falcons in a five-wide receiver formation.
“There some different things that we did in certain situations,” Ryan said. “I think the touchdown that we missed to Devonta (Freeman) was a little bit different from what we’ve done in the past. There was some similar stuff, but at the end of the day it comes down to making plays when you get those chances.”
Wide receiver Julio Jones was dazzling, as he had 10 catches for 169 yards, but couldn’t come up with any of his red-zone targets.
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“At the end of the day, you can’t shy away (from) it,” Jones said. “We have struggled in it, but that doesn’t define us, like I said. We just have to keep working on it.”
On the final play of the game against the Eagles, Jones came down with the ball, but was out of bounds.
“We just have to make plays and keep practicing them,” Jones said. “We just have to make plays when they present themselves down there in the red zone.”
Last season, the Falcons converted on only 49.18 percent of their red-zone opportunities and ranked 23rd in the NFL. Improving those numbers were a point of emphasis over the offseason and in training camp.
The Falcons don’t want to start second-guessing themselves when they reach the red zone.
“Don’t let it be too big for us as an offense,” Jones said. “We are a great offense. We don’t need to go down there and make up things. We are talented enough to make plays down there and score touchdowns.”
The Panthers have a new defensive coordinator in Eric Washington, but their scheme hasn’t changed much.
“They are the same team defensively,” Jones said. “But we are going to go into this game with some new wrinkles.”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn has remained patient with the offense.
“By no means was I satisfied with scoring,” Quinn said. “But sometimes the play selection was the right one, (but) we didn’t nail it in terms of our execution of that. Other times it can be the opposite where the guy played well and covered it, too, we had an example of that.
“We threw a route to Julio that (Jalen) Mills had good coverage on. Normally, it’s a good one, but he defended that play well. That make sense? It’s not all either execution or the call.”
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So, the Falcons have to get all of the variables in the red zone to line up in their favor, from the play call to execution against the weaker spots of the defense.
“For us it usually comes down to, we play our best when we have a good balance in our run and pass,” Quinn said. “That’s what we need to be. Our run game, how we feature the backs, the play-action that goes with it, that’s where so many of our explosive plays come from. We’ll work to get that part right.”
Whatever the Falcons’ approach, they know they must find a way to score in the red zone.
“You just really have to dial in when you’re down there,” right guard Brandon Fusco said. “Turnovers, penalties, any kind of missed assignment, mental errors, anything down there will hurt you. You just have to really zone in and be focused. Points are hard to come by in this league and we know that. That hurt us last week.”
Sarkisian expects another tough battle with the Panthers.
“It starts with (Luke) Kuechly in the middle,” Sarkisian said. “He’s just so smart, and he always gets those guys lined up really well. Just the strength they have in the interior front with (Dontari) Poe and (Kawann) Short. Shaq Thompson is playing really well. (Mario) Addison is playing well.
“So, at the end of the day, you’ve got to keep chipping away at them. I think we’ve got a good plan going into it. We can’t become a one-dimensional team against this group because they can rush the passer really well.”
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