Atlanta Falcons need to play to strengths

Julio Jones had 147 yards and a score as Atlanta won on the strength of its passing game. J. Meric/Getty Images

TAMPA, Fla. -- Go back and watch just about any Atlanta Falcons game this season and you’ll walk away with as many questions as answers.

They win almost every week, but the way they do it makes you wonder if it’s a mirage.

Are we getting set up for a repeat of the 2010 season?

The Falcons improved to 10-1 with their 24-23 victory Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.

They shut down rookie sensation Doug Martin (50 yards on 21 carries) and Matt Ryan threw for 353 passing yards. They added cushion to their NFC South lead, now four games, as the Bucs fell to 6-5.

“You can always count on close games when you come down to play an NFC South game," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said.

All that is wonderful, but this one really didn’t feel or look much different than last week’s victory against the Arizona Cardinals. Or the wins against the Panthers, Redskins, Raiders and Cowboys.

Yeah, the Bucs are better than all those teams and any road win in the NFL is a good win. But you keep expecting the Falcons to have it all click and steamroll an opponent. Instead, it just seems like each week draws attention to a flaw.

That’s why you wonder if this team is any different than the 2010 team that strolled to a 13-3 record, earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC and the home-field advantage that comes with it. You might remember how that worked out. The Green Bay Packers went into the Georgia Dome and thumped the Falcons.

Throw in the fact the Falcons have yet to win a playoff game in the Smith/Ryan era and it’s fair to question if this team is anywhere near as good as its record. It’s fair game to question if the Falcons will ever get over the playoff hump.

What’s the answer? We won’t find out until January, and all we can take from Sunday is more mixed signals.

Let’s start with the positives. The rule of thumb in the NFL is that your defense must be able to stop the run to win in the playoffs. The Falcons, who had struggled against the run recently, made great strides in that department. Although Martin scored two touchdowns, he averaged only 2.4 yards per carry. Martin didn’t have a carry that went for more than 10 yards.

“He’s a tough guy to tackle," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “He’s like a big muscle. I think we did a pretty good job of defending him."

A big reason for that was the fact Weatherspoon returned to the lineup after missing three games with an ankle injury. Weatherspoon finished with six tackles, including one for a loss, on a day when the Falcons had seven tackles for a loss. Weatherspoon’s physical presence made a difference, but he brings more than that.

“Sean Weatherspoon is one of our best football players," Smith said. “We’ve missed him the last three weeks. Having him back in there was a big boost for us not only in the way we play the run but in the volume that we can have. When we have him in there, he’s very efficient at what we want to do and getting us into the right fronts based on some formations."

Weatherspoon and the defense played a huge role in ending Tampa Bay’s winning streak at four games. So did Ryan and the passing game. Any highlight package of this game would have to start with Ryan’s 80-yard touchdown bomb to Julio Jones that gave the Falcons a 17-13 lead with 8:26 remaining in the third quarter.

“We had one-on-one coverage," Ryan said. “He inside released [Tampa Bay cornerback Leonard Johnson] and just tried to get back to the outside. I tried to throw it down there high and outside so he could make a play on it. He did. He made a great adjustment."

That play -- where Jones did a great job adjusting while the ball was in the air -- alone was enough to justify Atlanta’s daring move to trade up in the 2011 draft to get Jones.

But the Jones play also is the perfect place to transition into the nitpicking phase. Johnson was matched up on Jones much of the day. The Falcons also have receivers Roddy White and Harry Douglas and a certain Hall of Fame tight end in Tony Gonzalez.

In addition to Johnson, who was playing in place of the injured Eric Wright, the Bucs were using E.J. Biggers and LeQuan Lewis at cornerback in a secondary that’s the main reason the Bucs came into the game ranked No. 32 in pass defense.

So why did the Falcons repeatedly look like they were trying to force the running game against the league’s top-ranked run defense?

Mainly because the Falcons were trying to force the running game.

“We felt like we needed to try it," Smith said. “We felt like we could do it too. We challenged our guys that we wanted to come down here, this was the No. 1 rushing defense in all of the NFL and we wanted to see if we could do it. We felt like we could. We got the looks that we liked and we were efficient doing it."

Efficient? Maybe on a few plays. Productive? I can’t go that far. Michael Turner again looked slow and it didn’t look like he had many holes to work with as he carried 13 times for 17 yards. Jacquizz Rodgers was a bit of a bright spot with 49 yards on 10 carries, but the Falcons finished with only 79 rushing yards and 13 of those came on a Ryan scramble.

There were times when I thought Mike Mularkey was back calling the plays. Under Dirk Koetter, I thought this was supposed to be a pass-first offense, especially when all the statistics say you’re playing an opponent that can stop the run but can’t stop the pass.

If the Falcons want to succeed in January -- maybe even February -- they should take a lesson from the touchdown drive that gave them the final margin of victory. It began with 10:21 remaining in the fourth quarter. On six straight plays, the Falcons lined up Ryan in the shotgun formation and passed. The first four were completed as the Falcons gained 59 yards. The fifth was incomplete and the sixth drew a pass-interference penalty that put the ball at Tampa Bay’s 3-yard line.

By then, the Bucs were so concerned by the passing game that Turner was able to run untouched around left end and into the end zone. That’s called using your passing game to set up your running game.

If the Falcons are going to start winning games easily in the regular season and avoid a repeat of the 2010 postseason, they need to play to their strengths.