FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons defensive end John Abraham thinks spotty coverage in the secondary is one reason for his decline in sacks this year.
He wasn’t timid about saying it, either.
“It has a lot to do with people maybe not knowing the coverage and not, I guess, being grown-ups with what they’re supposed to do,” Abraham said. “We’ve got to make changes.
“Like I said, ‘If I’m not playing well, y’all take me out.’ It’s a part of the game. We’re just going to move on.”
Rookie cornerback Chris Owens, a third-round draft pick from San Jose State, could take some snaps from Brent Grimes and Tye Hill when the Falcons (5-5) host Tampa Bay on Sunday.
Atlanta has dropped two straight and four of five after Giants quarterback Eli Manning passed for three touchdowns and a career-high 384 yards last week in New York.
Abraham had 11 sacks through 10 games last season, but the three-time Pro Bowl selection has only 3 1/2 this season — and just 1 1/2 sacks since the opening week.
Abraham finished with 16 1/2 sacks a year ago, setting a single-season franchise record that was a half sack better than Joel Williams’ 1980 mark.
“Against Washington, I had like nine quarterback hits,” Abraham said. “It’s like I was joking with my (defensive line) coach (Ray Hamilton), how can you hit the quarterback nine times and not get a sack? I’ve just got to turn hits into sacks.”
The Falcons’ 20 sacks rank 20th in the NFL, but instead of Abraham, defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and reserve end Kroy Biermann are tied for the team lead with four apiece.
Head coach Mike Smith believes Abraham’s production will increase if the secondary does a better job defending routes. Grimes and right-side starting cornerback Chris Houston have been beaten several times with their heads turned toward the receiver instead of the ball.
“Some guys have better ball skills than others, but it’s something we have to improve as coaches,” Smith said. “We have to continue to work with our guy to help them play the proper technique and playing the ball in the air. I don’t think it’s strictly instinct at all. I think it’s a skill that is learned and I think the guys can improve on “
Smith wouldn’t say if Owens will replace Grimes against the Bucs, who rank just 27th in scoring at 16.4 points per game and 29th in total offense.
Hill, a former first-round pick acquired in a late-August trade with St. Louis, has played in just three games. He was inactive the first five weeks and didn’t play at Dallas or New York.
Most of Owens’ playing time has come on special teams.
“He’s working hard to learn the system and to get an opportunity to get in there,” Smith said. “If an opportunity arises where we can get him in or we feel it merits him playing, then we’ll put him in.”
Abraham just wants consistency from the secondary against rookie quarterback Josh Freeman.
“We’ve got to bring some pressure, and he’ll do some errant things,” Abraham said. “He’s a young guy. If you watch him on tape, he’ll fumble the ball if you get close to him and he’ll throw the ball away. Another thing is trying to contain him. He’s pretty mobile to be so big.”
The Buccaneers plan to defend against Abraham the same as other opponents, rarely leaving him in single matchups and using a double-team or a tight end, running back or fullback to help.
“He’s always going to have the ability to give you problems,” Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris said. “You have to do certain things to protect against him. Everybody does it. If you make one mistake and get the wrong block on him on any given down or any given play, you are going to be in trouble.”