FLOWERY BRANCH — Safety Erik Coleman knew the Atlanta Falcons would grimace when they watched film Monday.
Turns out the Falcons’ pass rush and coverages were worse than he imagined.
"We were getting after them on first and second down, but on third down, I think it was just disappointing," Coleman said. "I think everyone’s intentions are well. We’re covering guys, but we’ve just got to be aware of the different situations on the routes that they’re running."
San Diego quarterback Phillip Rivers shredded the Falcons on four third-down plays early in the second quarter of Atlanta’s 27-24 preseason win Saturday.
The Chargers needed 13 yards, and Rivers hit Malcom Floyd for 18. Vincent Jackson made an acrobatic 32-yard catch on third-and-18. Rivers connected with Chris Chambers for 18 yards on third-and-17. Even worse was a third-and-24 that resulted in a 48-yard touchdown to running back Michael Bennett.
As badly as starting cornerbacks Chris Houston and Brent Grimes looked in giving up long plays, coach Mike Smith blamed the entire defense for breakdowns against a Chargers offense that was without star playmakers LaDainian Tomlinson and
"It’s not just the secondary," Smith said. "It’s team defense. They’re all out there together on third down, and they have a job to do. Obviously, when it takes place in a passing play, the first thing people are going to assume is that it was something in the secondary. That’s not necessarily the case."
Atlanta (2-1) plays its final exhibition Thursday night when Baltimore (3-0) visits the Georgia Dome. Smith said the staff has yet to decide if Houston and Grimes will take more snaps than usual for the fourth preseason game.
Most NFL teams either rest their starters entirely or use them only for a couple of series in the last preseason game, but the Falcons can’t afford to begin the regular season Sept. 13 against Miami with Houston and Grimes lacking a physical presence in coverage.
Both cornerbacks were negligent in jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage, and the defense paid for it when Rivers found his targets for big gains.
"We watched the film and we learned from it," Grimes said of the secondary. "We just want to improve in the next preseason game and take it into the regular season."
Atlanta’s pass rush would appear better off.
Defensive end John Abraham, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, is coming off a single-season franchise record with 16.5 sacks. Jamaal Anderson and Chauncey Davis line up on the other side, and the interior appears set with fifth-year veteran Jonathan Babineaux and rookie Peria Jerry.
The Falcons signed Babineaux, a three-technique tackle, to a five-year contract extension last November. Jerry was the 24th overall pick in the NFL draft.
Abraham agreed with Smith that the pass rush shared blame against San Diego.
"It’s all about being in the lanes and doing the right thing," Abraham said. "There’s some stuff we’ve got to do a better job of in getting to the quarterback."
Because it was only a preseason game, Smith and his staff aren’t terribly concerned. Atlanta last year ranked 13th in third-down efficiency and 17th in sacks per pass attempt.
Interception totals need to improve, however, after the Falcons ranked 28th in percentage of pass plays picked off last season.
"All correctable," Smith said. "That’s the great thing. We spent the day on making those corrections and came out here working on a number of things we felt like we needed to do."
Second-round pick William Moore, a safety from Missouri, will not play or practice this week because of a tender left leg. After undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery earlier this month, Moore strained his hamstring on the same leg against the Chargers.
Third-round pick Chris Owens returned to the game despite spraining an ankle, but veteran Von Hutchins, who was expected to compete for the left-side cornerback job when training camp began, is still brittle following a broken foot that sidelined him throughout 2008.
Second-year cornerback Chevis Jackson has played well in nickel and dime situations, but the Falcons haven’t given him too much work in man-to-man coverages.
"Just like the first two weeks in the preseason, there was some good, there was some bad and there was some ugly," Smith said. "There were some really good plays on first and second down. There were some really bad plays on third down, and that was kind of the story for the defense in the ballgame."NOTES: RB Jerious Norwood will not practice or play this week after injuring his left knee and suffering a head injury, as Smith called it, against the Chargers. Smith expects he will be ready in Week 1.