FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga.. The Atlanta Falcons are at their best when playing takeaway.
The NFC-leading Falcons (8-2) have outscored opponents 73-30 in the fourth quarter. Coach Mike Smith attributes much of the late success to a turnover margin that ranks second in the league.
When winning the turnover battle, Atlanta is 17-1 in three years under Smith. This season, the Falcons have a plus-10 margin in takeaways, which trails only Philadelphia.
Coming off a 34-17 victory at St. Louis, the Falcons have a four-game winning streak and lead New Orleans and Tampa Bay by one game in the NFC South heading into Sunday’s big contest against another division leader, the .
Like every coach, Smith recites a familiar mantra to his players every spring when they report for mini-camp: Win the turnover battle, and you win games.
The team has clearly taken the message to heart. Atlanta is 7-0 this season when it has fewer turnovers than the opponent.
“We’re plus-one this week, so we’re now plus-10,” Smith said Monday. “We’re second in the league, and when you get the turnovers and don’t turn the ball over and you’re on the plus side, you’re basically stealing possessions.”
Not that it’s been easy. The Falcons have needed fourth-quarter magic to beat St. Louis, Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Cincinnati.
Safety William Moore was the latest hero, picking off Sam Bradford’s shuttle pass at the Atlanta 1 before Michael Turner’s 39-yard touchdown run one possession later sealed the win.
“We just got away for a minute in the end there,” Turner said, “but it was pretty tight throughout the whole game.”
The Falcons aren’t just satisfied with multiple takeaways and minimal giveaways. Ranking second in time of possession, second in third-down offensive efficiency and seventh in rushing, Atlanta has found a strong formula for winning.
Defense creates turnovers. Offense scores points.
But it also helps that quarterback Matt Ryan is becoming a master at making the correct pre-snap reads, calling plays from no-huddle formations and making use of several targets.
Ryan benefits from having three elite playmakers in Turner, NFL receiving leader Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, but he also gets starting wideout Michael Jenkins and several reserves involved in the passing game.
Against the , a four-man tandem of reserves — tight end Justin Peelle, running back Jason Snelling and receivers Brian Finneran and Eric Weems — combined to catch seven passes for 70 yards, two touchdowns and three third-down conversions.
If there was one complaint about Sunday’s win, the Falcons scored just two touchdowns in five red-zone opportunities. But Ryan was still pleased to put up points on four straight first-half possessions as he changed the offensive tempo, switching out of the no-huddle.
“We had some quick snaps, but we also used some clock and also some dummy cadences to kind of get a look from them,” Ryan said. “I think we were more effective in our no-huddle, but we also had great field position.”
It was enough for the Falcons to return home with their 11th victory in 13 games dating to Week 15 last season.
Maybe the national buzz hasn’t swept up the Falcons. They don’t mind a bit.
“It was a good win for us, but again we’ve got another tough opponent this week,” Ryan said. “We’re going to need to get back to work and prepare the way we have all year.”
Notes: Smith said the decision to rest team sacks leader (groin) was easy. It was the first game Abraham has missed under Smith. “We believed it was in our best interests to hold him out, knowing that we’ve got a long, hard part of our season coming up, especially now with three of the next four games on the road,” the coach said.