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Ryan struggling in the red zone for Falcons
Atlanta Falcons running back Jerious Norwood jumps for the goal line last Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

FLOWERY BRANCH — Matt Ryan has struggled finding receivers in tight places.
Atlanta's rookie quarterback, named an alternate selection to the Pro Bowl on Wednesday, has guided the team to just six touchdowns in 11 red-zone possessions and seven turnovers over the last three games.

Ryan is at his best when working with enough space for his receivers to emerge from breaks in their routes. It's no surprise that he ranks third in the NFL behind San Diego's Phillip Rivers and Dallas' Tony Romo with 8.09 yards per attempt.

Once the field shortens inside the opponents' 20-yard line, Ryan has found that his options close quickly.

"Things speed up when you get down there," Ryan said. "I think we've actually done a pretty good job of getting points when we've been down there. We've been down there a lot. I think that speaks to how well we move the ball as an offense to get into those situations, but I think every team strives to score (touchdowns) when they're in the red zone. Everyone wants to put it in the end zone."

Fortunately for Atlanta, kicker Jason Elam has made nine straight field-goal attempts in the red zone, including game-winners against Chicago and Tampa Bay, but the true measure of a productive offense is scoring touchdowns.

That was hardly the case in a 22-16 victory at San Diego three weeks ago. White dropped a pass in the end zone. Atlanta lost three fumbles, and the offense failed on four straight runs to score from first-and-goal at the 2 just before halftime.

"We've been very fortunate to win (when) we were minus-3 in the turnover ratio," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "That doesn't happen very often statistically, somewhere around 10 to 15 percent of the time when you're minus-3, so it's something that we have to continue to harp on and make sure that we don't put ourselves in those situations."

It's going to take a mistake-free game Sunday at Minnesota (9-5) if the Falcons are going to improve their chances of making the playoffs.

After watching Ryan complete just nine of 14 passes for 139 yards and two interceptions in the first half last week, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey decided to ease the demands of making deep reads against Tampa Bay's disguised coverages.

The two longest passing gains following intermission were a 27-yarder to reserve tight end Jason Rader and a 14-yarder to White in overtime. Both balls, however, were thrown to short routes on the right side of the field. At least White was able to move the flags to the Buccaneers' 45.

Rader fared much worse after Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden successfully challenged a reversed call of his first career touchdown. Instead of leading 17-7, the Falcons had to resume managing a tight game against their NFC South rivals.

"On the flip side of it, I will say that our guys have handled those adverse situations very well," Smith said. "I think that speaks to the resiliency of this football team."

Following a quick three-and-out on Atlanta's next possession, Mularkey essentially put the game in Turner's hands, and the NFL's second-leading rusher did not disappoint. He touched the ball 14 times on the last 24 plays, rushing 13 times for 80 yards and catching a 12-yard pass.

Turner's success also gave Ryan some resolve to convert a third-and-3 on the snap that immediately followed the quarterback's fumble on a midfield hit by Bucs defensive end Kevin Carter.

Left guard Justin Blalock bailed out Ryan by beating three Tampa Bay defenders to the loose ball.
Ryan plans to return the favor this week by helping the offense stay focused on winning at Minnesota.

"I think the focus has been about taking care of our own situation," Ryan said. "All we can do at this point is win the games on our schedule, so that's really all we're focused on this week."

Notes: Smith excused defensive end John Abraham and linebacker Keith Brooking from practice, but the coach expects both players to return on Thursday morning. ... Reserve cornerback Brent Grimes has played only on special teams since he injuring his leg in a Week 6 win over Chicago, but Smith believes he can return to helping in schemes that require more than four defensive backs. The loss of David Irons to a season-ending knee injury moved up the importance of getting Grimes back on the field after Domonique Foxworth won his former job at left cornerback.

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