COVER 9@9: Falcons’ quarterly report card

Falcons running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman prepare to play the Bills on Sunday, October 1, 2017, in Atlanta. They have carried the team early in the 2017 season. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Good morning! Welcome to The Cover 9@9 blog. It’s our weekly blog of nine things at 9 a.m Wednesday that  you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons (3-1). The defending NFC champion Falcons have a bye week and are set to face the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, Oct. 15  at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Instead of the nine items this week, we just have the quarterly report card for you. We saw a lot of C or C-plus action over the first four games. The Falcons need to step it up on several fronts.

The Falcons weren’t able to cobble together a full game of strong play over the first quarter of the season.

In the regular-season opener at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they dazzled against Green Bay for a little over a half. The defending NFC champions are very fortunate to be 3-1 after the first quarter of the season.

While taking on a rash of injuries, the Falcons made just enough plays to get past Chicago and Detroit. They just couldn’t pull another rabbit out of their helmets against Buffalo.

“It’s not 4-0,” left tackle Jake Matthews said. “Obviously, we’d like that. We’ve done some good things, but we can do a lot better. We are doing some things good, but not anywhere near where we want to be. We have to continue to get better.”

The early bye gives the Falcons a chance to re-set and focus.

The Falcons now know what it’s like to get everyone’s best shot. Chicago, Detroit and Buffalo got after them. They knocked Green Bay down before they made the final score look respectable while in scramble mode.

The bye also will give a few guys a chance to heal.

“We have high expectations for ourselves as a team, and anytime that we don’t reach those, we’re going to be hard on ourselves,” Matthews said. “At the end of the day, it’s about winning.”

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Here are the quarterly grades for the Falcons:

Run offense: Devonta Freeman is on pace to rush for 1,183 yards and 20 touchdowns. Tevin Coleman also is off to a strong start. He has broken explosive runs, but is getting tripped up too often after he gets into the open field. Fullback Derrick Coleman has been solid. The team still continues to call passes in short-yardage situations. They need to solve that situation with Freeman, who’s running hard, and possibly Derrick Coleman as the lead blocker. When the Falcons needed a yard against Buffalo early in the game, Freeman got in behind left guard Andy Levitre and center Alex Mack to get into the end zone. Grade: A

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Pass offense: Matt Ryan looked a little off against Buffalo, and the time missed over the offseason by Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel because of injuries has hindered the passing offense. The timing is off on passes traveling 10 yards or more. Ryan has completed 88 of 135 passes (65.2 percent) for 1,109 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions. He’s on pace for 20 interceptions, which would be a career-high. Julio Jones has not scored a touchdown, and Gabriel’s lone score was on a 40-yard screen play. With the reserves playing against Buffalo, they foiled the offense with five dropped passes. The line must improve its pass protection. The receivers and Ryan must get their timing down. Three of Ryan’s interceptions were off tipped balls. Two were ill-advised throws against Detroit and Buffalo. Grade: C-plus

Run defense: The run defense has been solid, but there are still too many missed tackles. We don’t hold that against the defense early in the season. They don’t practice tackling anymore, so the only time they see live runs are in the games. If they are still missing tackles after the bye, then it’s an issue.

“We’ve been playing good,” middle linebacker Deion Jones said.  “We put some good things on tape. There are some things that we can hone in on and get better. There are different places that we go without preparation and stuff like that. Just finding those little things to help better our game.”

Jones has noticed that it’s a little different being the defending NFC champs. “We just have to realize that we’re going to get the best shot from every team,” Jones said. “We have to be prepared for that and play our style of ball until the clock hits zero.”

Weakside linebacker Duke Riley is adjusting to the speed of the game and is missing too many tackles. The Falcons are confident he’ll come around. Grade: B

Pass defense: The Falcons spent a great deal of time over the offseason working on defending tight ends. Chicago’s Mike Glennon didn’t test them. They played well against Green Bay’s Martelius Bennett and Detroit’s Eric Ebron before Buffalo’s Charles Clay looked like John Mackey catching five passes for 112 yards. Trufant had a good game against Green Bay, but was clearly shaking off some rust Detroit and Buffalo. Nickel back Brian Poole is tenacious, while Robert Alford has been strong. Rookie Damontae Kazee played well for Ricardo Allen against Buffalo. The pass rush, which boasts 12 sacks and 27 quarterback hits, has been alive. Grade: B

Special teams:  Kicker Matt Bryant has made all of his field-goal kicks and ranks tied for fourth in the NFL with 33 points. He made field goals of 51 and 53 yards against Green Bay. Bosher and returner Andre Roberts are off to solid starts. However, the coverage units are getting too many penalties, and the team missed Ra’Shede Hageman, who was released after his domestic-violence case was adjudicated, against Buffalo when Steven Hauschka was able to sneak low kicks through on 56- and 55-yard field goals. Grade: B

Coaching: It’s a minor coaching miracle that the Falcons are 3-1 with how poorly they’ve played. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian had all offseason to come up with a short-yardage plan. It looks like he wants to finesse things, too. The Falcons need a power package or a jumbo package to get a yard or two when they need it. The Falcons have to keep working on covering tight ends. After Clay’s explosions, they’ll see those same routes over and over until they stop them. New defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel has not been afraid to blitz as three of the 12 sacks are from a linebacker or defensive back. The Falcons have to tighten things up. The coaches must get the message through to the players that everybody is coming with their A-game. Even Jay Culter and the Dolphins will be waiting to ambush the defending NFC champs. Then it’s New England, so on and so forth. Grade: B


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