Atlanta's 'process' still not finished

The Falcons' defense couldn't corral running back James Starks and the Packers. Dale Zanine/US Presswire

ATLANTA -- Their season is over. That “process’’ that the Atlanta Falcons always talk about? Well, we found out Saturday night that it’s far from complete.

After showing signs (a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs) all season that they had turned a corner and had a shot at the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history, the Falcons got a hard dose of reality. Despite all those bright spots, the Falcons haven’t arrived just yet.

You can’t be a championship team -- or anything really close to it -- when you’re getting trounced by the sixth-seeded Green Bay Packers 48-21 in your home building. What happened in the Georgia Dome might not take all that long to sink in because the flaws were so obvious.

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers (31-of-36 for 366 yards, three touchdowns and a 136.8 passer rating) had a game for the ages. Atlanta’s defense had a game that clearly showed that, even after two offseasons of focusing on upgrading that side of the ball, it still needs some pretty major work.

“It was a very disappointing evening for our football team and for our fans,’’ Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “We will come back from it. I can assure you of that.’’

Smith uses the “process’’ theme more than anyone and has since the day he arrived in Atlanta in 2008. Now, it’s going to be up to Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff to figure out how to take the next steps in going from a team that’s very good in the regular season to one that can carry that right through the postseason.

When they watch the film of the Green Bay game, there will be some pretty huge clues and most of them stem from the defensive side. It first should be noted that the Falcons were playing without injured nickel back Brian Williams. But it also should be noted that playing without an injured nickel back shouldn’t be reason enough for a good team to lose.

Second-year pro Christopher Owens struggled mightily filling in for Williams. But Owens shouldn’t be singled out for making mistakes. A lot of other guys on the defense had problems too, but Owens serves nicely as a symbol for where this defense truly is.

After working mostly on the offense (bringing in quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner in their first year), Smith and Dimitroff spent the past two seasons trying to get the defense to catch up with the offense. Rodgers’ performance showed the defense isn’t where it needs to be yet.

The Falcons need players such as Owens, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (this season’s first-round pick) and defensive tackle Peria Jerry (last season’s first-round pick) to become impact players. But it’s not just about young guys stepping up.

Cornerback Dunta Robinson, Atlanta’s lone significant free-agent pickup this season, was beaten several times as Green Bay put together four touchdown drives of 80 yards or more. Safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore, who showed most of the season that they are developing more quickly than Weatherspoon and Jerry, also deserve some blame for Green Bay’s success. And let’s not forget the pass rush, which was a major problem for the Falcons last season. Despite that, the Falcons didn’t make any major personnel moves up front this season. Instead, they gambled that signing Robinson would provide better coverage that would lead to more sacks and they took a leap of faith that veteran defensive end John Abraham would bounce back after a quiet 2009 season.

Those gambles worked in the regular season as Abraham produced 13 sacks. But the regular season looked like a mirage Saturday night. The Falcons sacked Rodgers twice.

“We had opportunities to get him on the ground,’’ Smith said. “We had free runners, but we didn’t convert.’’

Speaking of converting, the usually efficient Atlanta offense didn’t do much of that. Ryan, who now is 0-2 in the postseason, could only watch as Rodgers had a game that firmly established him as one of the league’s elite quarterbacks. Ryan started off well, but that quickly faded. He threw two interceptions, including one that was returned 70 yards by Tramon Williams on the final play of the first half to give Green Bay a 28-14 lead. With Turner getting only one carry in the second half and finishing the game with 10 carries for 39 yards, the Falcons produced only two offensive touchdowns (the third came on a kickoff return by Eric Weems). Ryan completed 20 of 29 passes for one touchdown and had a 69.0 passer rating.

“Any time you’re in the playoffs, you have an opportunity to go win it all,’’ Ryan said. “It’s disappointing when that doesn't happen.’’

There was plenty of disappointment in the Atlanta locker room after the game. But there also were some strong undercurrents of hope for the future.

“We will learn from it,’’ Smith said. “There’s a whole body of work that we put together and that can’t be forgotten.’’

“We’re still a very young team in the big scope of things,’’ Dimitroff said. “We have a lot of third- and fourth-year players as our core and we’ve been very encouraged by their development. They need to keep developing and we need to keep moving forward.’’

There is change with every NFL team every year and the Falcons won’t be an exception. Smith and Dimitroff won’t sit still. They’ll continue with the process and they’ll address the needs that became so obvious against the Packers.

“We’ve got a lot of good things to build on from what we did this year,’’ Ryan said.

He’s got a point. Players such as Ryan, Roddy White, Curtis Lofton and Jonathan Babineaux all are in their prime or nearing it. Players such as Abraham, center Todd McClure and tight end Tony Gonzalez are aging, but they also still played at a high level this season and could keep going.

“The future of this team is bright,’’ said Gonzalez, who is 34 and said he won’t make any decision about his future until he has a little time to relax and think a bit, but added he still loves football and feels healthy. “This is going to be one of the glamour teams of the NFL for the next five or six years. I guarantee you that.’’

Well, a guarantee might be a little strong. But the point is, the Falcons have the core in place. They just need to make a few more moves to finish the process.