Falcons fall flat in Pittsburgh

Matt Ryan and the Atlanta offense wasted a strong performance by the Falcons defense. AP Photo/Don Wright

PITTSBURGH – Rise up? How about falling flat?

That’s what the Atlanta Falcons did Sunday at Heinz Field. The team that made the phrase “Rise Up’’ the centerpiece of its offseason marketing campaign, at very least, stumbled badly in the season opener.

When you’ve got a good young core of players that you think is about to take the next step, there’s nothing wrong with promoting the idea of rising up. Seems like everyone else in Atlanta got the message, except the Falcons.

“I thought it was a well-fought game,’’ Atlanta coach Mike Smith said.

Well fought? Yeah, we’ll give Smith that. But well played? No, not even close.

If you truly aspire to be a playoff team, you don’t go on the road and lose 15-9 in overtime to a Pittsburgh Steelers team that’s playing its third-string quarterback. With Ben Roethlisberger suspended and Byron Leftwich out, Matt Ryan easily should have been the best quarterback on the field.

He wasn’t. Dennis Dixon was, and that’s a huge problem for the Falcons. One loss doesn’t make a season, but it sure can set a tone. Three hours after the season started for the Falcons, they already were one game behind the New Orleans Saints … and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You’ve got to figure the Bucs will run into reality at some point, but the Saints aren’t the kind of team you can give an early lead and expect to come back.

Especially when you lose a game you should have won.

“They were the better team today,’’ Smith said.

I’m not buying that. With Roethlisberger, sure. With Leftwich, maybe. But, with Dixon and not much else but a good defense, the Falcons had a big opportunity. It wasn’t like Dixon tore Atlanta’s defense apart. He completed 18 of 26 passes for 236 yards with one interception. He appeared frazzled at times, made some bad throws and only led the Steelers to three field goals in the 60 minutes of regulation time.

So where was Atlanta’s new-look defense, which is supposed to be so much better than last season, and what about all the rumors that the Falcons would have an actual pass rush this year?

Well, the Falcons did record three sacks. But two of those came on back-to-back plays near the end of regulation, and the other one came earlier in the second half. When the Falcons had a chance to really rattle a young quarterback early on, they failed.

Let’s hit the defense with one more thing before we move to the real culprit. Overall, the defense wasn’t that bad until its first play of overtime. That’s when Rashard Mendenhall broke off a 50-yard touchdown run to win the game.

“To have a big play at the end like that just makes you sick to your stomach,’’ Atlanta linebacker Curtis Lofton said.

That was the only time either team got into the end zone all day, and that was Atlanta’s real crime.

“Our defense played well,’’ receiver Roddy White said. “We let them down as an offense.’’

What White said pretty much sums up the game. When you’ve got an offense that features Ryan, White, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner, you shouldn’t have such trouble scoring points.

“We’ve got to make more big plays,’’ White said.

He’s right. The Falcons had only two pass plays go for 20 yards or more, and the longest was 23 yards. The Falcons didn’t have a run go for more than seven yards. Aside from White, who caught 13 passes for 111 yards, the Falcons really had no offensive bright spots.

Did the absence of injured receiver Michael Jenkins really make that much difference? It shouldn’t. Jenkins is a role player, a guy who’s supposed to catch some possession passes and make some blocks in the running game.

Where Jenkins is important in the running game is down the field. But the Falcons never came close to getting down the field in the running game. Turner carried 19 times for 42 yards. That’s a 2.2-yard average.

That’s hugely disappointing, especially after we heard so much in the offseason about how Turner was in such better physical condition than last season. Turner admitted he let himself get out of shape after a huge 2008 season and has claimed he’s on a mission to prove he was not a one-season wonder.

I’m not ready to write Turner off just yet, because it didn’t look like his offensive line was doing him any favors. Then again, Turner wasn’t making anything happen on his own.

Same with Ryan. The conventional wisdom among the Falcons was that Ryan didn’t have a bad season in 2009 -- that he was just the victim of injuries to Turner and receiver Harry Douglas. I bought it at the time and repeatedly argued that Ryan didn’t have what many called a “sophomore slump."

But now I’m starting to wonder about that and about Turner perhaps being a one-season wonder. That makes me wonder about the whole idea of Atlanta rising up.

Sure, the defense looked pretty good, and that’s encouraging even against an inexperienced quarterback. But the offense, which seems so talented on paper, really hasn’t played to its full potential in a very long time. Was 2008 just a mirage?

“It’s one game,’’ Ryan said. “Our objective has to be to get back to work and fix some things.’’

Ryan’s right. It is only one game. But there are a lot of things to fix and the Arizona Cardinals come to the Georgia Dome next week and the Falcons go to New Orleans in Week 3. If the Falcons don’t fix things quickly and find an offense, they won’t be rising up.