Falcons struggle across the board

Atlanta's Michael Turner lost this first-quarter fumble during an ugly opening loss in Chicago. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

CHICAGO – One game into the season, the Atlanta Falcons have an identity they don't want.

“Sloppy ball,’’ linebacker Mike Peterson said. “We played sloppy ball.’’

That might be putting it kindly. A team that has spent the past three seasons winning with precise efficiency lost in a way it seldom has since Mike Smith took over as coach in 2008.

The Falcons spewed turnovers, failed to protect their quarterback and got very few of the big plays they talked so much about during the offseason. And that’s just the offense. The defense did such a poor job that if Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler put up those kind of numbers in his days with the Broncos, he’d still be in Denver and John Elway would be forgotten.

Throw in nine penalties for 65 yards and it all added up to a 30-12 loss to the Bears at Soldier Field in a game that was pretty much over during the second quarter.

“We’ve just got to make sure that doesn’t happen again,’’ cornerback Dunta Robinson said.

You can at least start to wonder if those predictions that had the Falcons going to the Super Bowl, or at least deep into the playoffs, were way off base. This team looked like it was one day out of the lockout or still caught in last season’s playoff loss to Green Bay.

Quarterback Matt Ryan threw an interception (that set up a touchdown) and Michael Turner lost a fumble -- and that was just in the first quarter. In the third quarter, Ryan lost a fumble that Brian Urlacher returned for a touchdown.

Smith always emphasizes the importance of the turnover battle and the Falcons usually win it. Not this time. They turned the ball over three times and generated only one takeaway -- an interception that went for a touchdown by defensive end Kroy Biermann in the fourth quarter, long after the game had been decided.

“You’re going to decrease your chances of winning,’’ Smith said. “We can’t do that.’’

When Biermann and kicker Matt Bryant, who made two field goals, are your most explosive players, it’s not a good thing.

Rookie receiver Julio Jones and free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards, the players who were brought in to help the Falcons become more explosive, didn’t have major impacts. Jones had five catches for 71 yards, but most of that came way too late. Edwards produced precisely one tackle. But let’s not pin all the blame on the high-priced newcomers, because the Falcons were collectively and uncharacteristically bad.

“Explosiveness is not just for the offense,’’ Smith said. “It’s for the entire football team. We want to be explosive in all three phases.’’

They didn’t even come close. After an offseason filled with talk about more downfield passing, it seemed like there was less than in the past.

“I thought Chicago did a good job of keeping things in front,’’ Ryan said. “There were (deep) plays called, but I had to check down.’’

“There were plays that were designed to go into the end zone,’’ Smith said. “I can assure you of that. If the read took (Ryan) down, then he’s got to go where the reads take him. We’ve got to win our one-on-ones.’’

That can be tough to do when you’re going against the Tampa Two defense that Chicago runs, and give the Bears, who were the No. 2 seed in the NFC last season, plenty of credit for playing a strong all-around game.

But the Falcons were the No. 1 seed in the NFC last season and it looked like they’ve taken multiple steps back.

“Not the outcome we wanted,’’ Smith said. “Disappointed, not discouraged. It’s a long season. It’s Week 1. We’ will work to get it fixed and we will get it fixed.’’

That might sound like lip service coming from just about any other coach. But Smith’s got a track record in this area that he can point to.

Last season, the Falcons went up to Pittsburgh and lost the opener in a game where they didn’t play very well. They bounced back to win 13 of their next 15 games.

“It’s the first week of the season,’’ Smith said. “There’s a lot of football to be played. Let’s not be saying the sky is falling. We didn’t play well. I know that we will get things fixed. We’ve got a great locker room. We’ve got a great group of men that work very hard and love to compete. We’ll come back and we’ll get things fixed.’’

Maybe Smith’s right and maybe the Falcons will recover just like they did after the Pittsburgh loss last season. It’s too early to say a disappointing performance means doom for the Falcons. That’s especially true in an opening week in which New Orleans and Tampa Bay, the teams viewed as the main challengers to Atlanta’s NFC South crown, also lost.

“You lose a game the way we did and you’ve got to come to work Monday expecting a very rough day,’’ Peterson said.

The Monday film session and the upcoming week of practice aren’t going to be a lot of fun. But Smith and his coaching staff fixed a lot of problems in a hurry last season, and it could happen again.

It almost has to. The Philadelphia Eagles and Michael Vick, who once was Atlanta’s franchise quarterback before an epic fall from grace, are coming to the Georgia Dome next Sunday night.

If the Falcons play against the Eagles the way they did against the Bears, we’re no longer talking about one game or one week. We could be talking about a long season.