FLOWERY BRANCH — Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hopes he never has to endure another five-interception game.
It might sound too simple, but Ryan considers last week's narrow victory over Arizona as a learning experience that could have ended much worse.
"I've got good players around me — that's the biggest part," Ryan said on Wednesday. "I thought our defense played awesome last week. They kept us in it, and that's what it's all about. It's about winning games, but as a quarterback you need to do your part, too."
Despite his career-high five picks, Ryan still helped the Falcons (9-1) squeak past the Cardinals to maintain a three-game lead over second-place Tampa Bay in the NFC South.
It wasn't easy to watch on film, particularly considering how many times Arizona tipped his passes and how often he threw to the wrong spot. Leaky protections hardly gave him much time to set his feet against blitzes up the middle.
"I've just got to find better passing lanes, and that's on me," Ryan said. "I've done a good job of that in the past. I just didn't do a good job of that last week."
Tampa Bay (6-4) has won four straight and five of its last six games, a streak that Ryan credits to the Bucs' ability to stuff the run and make an offense one-dimensional.
When the Falcons visit Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, their ground attack must overcome its ugly tendency to stall early in games and break down repeatedly in short-yardage and red-zone situations.
Against Arizona, Michael Turner's longest run was 10 yards, and Jacquizz Rodgers' longest was six. If the Falcons can reverse that trend this week, they must do so against the NFL's No. 1 run defense.
Atlanta averaged a paltry 2.6 yards per carry over the last two weeks in a loss at New Orleans, which has the league's worst run defense, and in a home win over Arizona, which ranks 21st.
Tampa Bay has two rookies, linebacker Lavonte David and strong safety Mark Barron, playing at a high level for a defense that leads the league with 87 negative plays, 59 negative runs and ranks sixth with 20 takeaways.
Falcons coach Mike Smith dismisses the poor numbers put up by the Bucs' pass defense — they rank last in the league — because opponents have been trailing Tampa Bay recently and have had to pass to try and catch up.
"They've been a very aggressive team in terms of stopping the run, and they're scoring a lot of points," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "The other thing shows up is that they're very good in the turnover ratio, but when they do create those turnovers, the offense is turning them into points. They're No. 1 in the league in terms of scoring touchdowns off turnovers."
One reason the Bucs are tough up front: Their ends, Michael Bennett and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, and tackles, Gerald McCoy and Roy Miller, are adept at confusing an offensive line just before the snap. They disguise looks by shifting to a different front after an opponent's center makes pass protection and run-blocking calls.
"It's our job to anticipate the shift and to know your job before the shift happens so you don't get stuck in no-man's land and not be sure if you're supposed to go left or right," Falcons right tackle Tyson Clabo said. "That's just part of our preparation this week and what we're going to have to overcome. On the road, it can be difficult to communicate."
After Ryan's poor performance last week, the fifth-year veteran became the first NFL quarterback to throw five interceptions and no touchdowns in a victory since Green Bay's Bart Starr in 1967.
"If any quarterback has the right mentality for that, it's Matt," Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "His experience and the fact that it was very unusual. There were some unusual bounces. You've got to have a short memory. It's like the corner who gives up a touchdown."
Smith credits Ryan's balanced approach — he doesn't get too fired up when the Falcons do something well and doesn't get too down when they struggle — with helping him stay focused.
"If it's a good play, you put it in the compartment and you move on to the next one," Smith said. "If it's a bad play, it's the same thing. I think it just speaks volumes to be able to put things behind him and be very resilient. I think we've shown that as a football team a number of times this year."
Ryan just wants to avoid making mistakes.
"You have to learn from things, but you have to be able to put them behind you, in the right way, and not let them take away as you move forward," he said. "I think that I myself have done a good job of that, and I think our team has, too.