FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- One number jumps off the page when Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian dissects what's going right with the offense as of late.
"Definitely scoring points in the red zone," Sarkisian said. "When you're scoring touchdowns in the red zone, that has a dramatic difference on how the game can be played moving forward. It changes the complexion of the game for our defense when they get a lead. It changes the complexion for us [because] the run game becomes even more viable. You can play-pass. You can do those things."
The Falcons went 7-for-9 in the red zone over the past three games with wins against Seattle and Dallas, and a narrow loss to Carolina. It's a stark contrast to the 3-for-10 combined red-zone showing in a loss at New England and a win against the New York Jets.
"Now, there's a lot that goes into getting into the red zone," Sarkisian said. "You've got to convert third downs. You need to be efficient on first and second down. But I just think the biggest component for us the last couple games is scoring touchdowns, when we have our chances, in the low red zone."
The 6-4 Falcons, currently sixth in the NFC playoff picture, probably won't catch up to last year's league-leading pace of 33.8 points per game. But their scoring is starting to look more like 2016 again after tying a season-high with 34 points against the Seahawks -- thanks, in large part, to the defense -- and 27 points against the Cowboys.
The Falcons averaged 28.8 points per game in their six wins and watched that average dip to 14.5 in four losses. They take an average of 23.1 points per game, which ranks 13th in the NFL, into Sunday's NFC South matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who rank 17th in scoring defense in allowing 22.8 points per game. The Falcons scored 43 points the last time they played the Buccaneers and scored 56 when they last defeated Tampa Bay at home, in 2014.
Quarterback Matt Ryan, with the league's sixth-best passer rating on third down, at 98.6, feels the offense getting into a flow. Ryan is 8-of-12 for 60 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions in the red zone over the past three games.
"I felt like we've been close throughout the year but haven't been able to really put it all together," Ryan said. "I think the last couple of weeks, we've been better. It starts, for me, with third-down conversions. I think that was the key last week against Seattle. We converted third downs at a high rate [9-of-14], which kept us on the field, kept us moving the ball, gave us some more opportunities to create explosive plays.
"I also think we've done a good job in the red area. We’ve been down there a bunch, and we've been coming away with touchdowns, which is key. When you get your scoring opportunities and you put seven points up there, it's critical. So we've done a good job in those two areas."
With so much attention on All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones, spreading the ball around has worked in the Falcons' favor as well. Mohamed Sanu has done his part with a team-leading four touchdown receptions.
Sarkisian pointed out the key third-down conversion receiver Justin Hardy picked up on the first drive against Seattle that helped build momentum. Hardy, tight end Austin Hooper and tight end Levine Toilolo each have had a touchdown in the past two games.
Not to mention that the Falcons have turned to a rather heavy package in goal-line situations, installing defensive tackle Dontari Poe as a blocking fullback and even sending Poe in motion for deception against the Seahawks.
"I think it's been good," Sarkisian said. "Poe's been in, I think, three times now. We had a couple runs and a pass. We've mixed [Ben] Garland in some at tight end. This season is a long season. You're always trying to find different ways to get better. And incorporating a couple different guys has been good for us."
The pass protection has to continue to hold up, and Sarkisian was pleased with only one sack allowed against a menacing Seahawks defense. The offensive line has to continue that trend against Gerald McCoy and the Buccaneers.
Sticking with the run will be key as well. The Falcons hoped to get Devonta Freeman back from a concussion soon after he returned to practice Thursday. Tevin Coleman will continue to be the primary back until Freeman returns, and the threat of Coleman's breakaway speed keeps defenses in check. In turn, the play-action game gets going, even if the running game isn't fully clicking.
"We have to be stubborn at times to stick to our run game," Sarkisian said. "A lot of times, early in the game, some of those runs might not look great. But as you see in late in that fourth quarter against Seattle, [Terron] Ward was able to pop out on a couple of those runs late.
"[One], you have to keep leaning on them for the effectiveness of the run and allowing the runners to see the run. Two, you need to lean on them to help the play-action pass game. And three, we don't want to become a one-dimensional team."