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Falcons' third-down woes on offense concern Smith
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FLOWERY BRANCH — Coach Mike Smith is giving the Atlanta Falcons four days off following a victory over the rival New Orleans Saints.

When they return to practice on Tuesday, Smith will have the offense focus hard on correcting third-down problems that could have cost them against the Saints.

"We'll have a Falcons-on-Falcons day to get us back in the routine," Smith said on Friday. "Rest a couple of our guys that need to be rested. It comes at an ideal time."

The timing does seem good. Players and coaches will use the days off to relax after taking a narrow victory at Tampa Bay last Sunday and beating New Orleans 23-13 at the Georgia Dome four nights later.

Atlanta's tendencies this season are obvious: When the offense struggles, the defense shines — as was the case on Thursday — but the next couple of games might be just the opposite.

Quarterback Matt Ryan points out, however, that the Falcons, despite their difficulties in one phase or the other, are winning as a team.

With an 11-1 record, something is clearly going right, and the special teams — highlighted by Matt Bryant's 55-yard field goal in the fourth quarter — do their part, too.

But the performance of a defense that intercepted Saints quarterback Drew Brees a career-high five times and snapped his NFL record 54-game touchdown streak held up an offense labored to convert a third down and keep New Orleans' offense off the field.

"I think, like I said before, the three phases have stepped up at different times this year and made plays for us and that's huge," Ryan said after finishing with a season-low 165 yards passing. "Specifically tonight the defense made a bunch of plays. That's what good teams do, you find ways to win and hopefully, offensively, we can play moving forward."

Thursday's win was different because Atlanta, which still has the NFL's most second-most efficient offense in third-down efficiency, converted none of its first nine chances before Julio Jones' fourth-quarter catch set up Matt Bryant's field goal and the game's final points.

The Falcons started with a strong rushing attack and finished with five runs over 12 yards.

During the middle of the game, however, Atlanta fell flat. Pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan, coverage on Roddy White and a sluggish run game stalled the offense.

White was particularly inefficient. Despite his ongoing public dispute with the Saints and their fans, White had 100 yards receiving in three of his last four games, including the loss at New Orleans three weeks ago.

But that game essentially ended when Jabari Greer knocked away what would've been a fourth-and-2 touchdown catch with 1:42 remaining.

The Falcons suffered their only loss this season, prompting White to fire his latest salvo in a verbal quarrel that's lasted several years: "We kind of gave it away. You know, we gave it to 'em."

On Thursday night, Greer and the Saints all but shut down White, who said in training camp how disappointed he was to lead the NFL in drops last season. Ryan targeted him seven times, including thrice on third down, but a couple of drops and poor timing between White and Ryan resulted in just one catch.

"I am relieved we got the win tonight in spite of how the offense played," White said after the game. "We were able to ride the momentum created from the defensive side of the ball. I have to give our defense a lot of credit because they performed on a high level from the outset of the game until the end."

Atlanta's offense has seemed to perform more consistently on the road, showing dominance of long stretches at Kansas City, San Diego, Washington and Philadelphia, but struggling for long gaps in home victories against Denver, Carolina, Oakland, Dallas, Arizona.

White says sometimes you have to credit the other team. New Orleans defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo called a good game.

"That was our least productive passing game we've had this season yardage-wise and efficiency-wise," White said. "They changed up from what they did the first time we played them. We had opportunities to make plays and we didn't make them. You have to give them credit. They did a nice job."

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