Up next: First look at Atlanta

The Falcons' offense has integrated Tony Gonzalez, who has proven early in the season to be a big boost to the team's passing game, but Atlanta is trying to find its trademark running game.

The Falcons led the league in rushing for most of last season before getting surpassed late in the season by the New York Giants. The attack that averaged 152.7 yards per game and finished ranked second in the league has been mired in the mud early in 2009.

The Falcons are averaging just 92.3 yards per game. To get things corrected the offensive linemen watched film of all 81 runs by the team this season.

"We looked at where we were falling short in the run game," center Todd McClure said. "All of the things we have to focus on to get our running game where it was last year."

Teams have loaded the box against the Falcons. The New England Patriots just played keep-away, by running out most of the third quarter.

McClure believes the unit found some solutions.

"We just have to concentrate on the little things," McClure said. "Whether if it's footwork or hand placement or helmet placement once you get up to the second level."

Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has stated that the unit has been close to popping some long gainers.

"I think we are going to have that breakout game," McClure said. "I just hope it's sooner rather than later. We are doing it right, it's just small breakdowns here and there that's keeping the offense from having those big runs."

The run game should get a boost from the return of running back Jerious Norwood, who missed the last game against the Patriots because of a concussion.

"We are much faster when we have Jerious in the game," Smith said. "He brings that speed element."

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The Falcons' secondary has been a construction project this season.

When they were not pleased with its play in the preseason, they went out and made a deal with Brian Williams and traded for cornerback Tye Hill.

Williams, who played for Falcons coach Mike Smith in Jacksonville, jumped right into the starting lineup at left cornerback. He slides down inside to the slot in nickel situations and Brent Grimes takes over outside.

But Hill, the 15th player taken in the 2006 draft, has been inactive for the first three games. He's had time to learn the system and get indoctrinated in how the Falcons want their cornerbacks to play.

"Well, Tye got a lot of reps, and that's what we wanted to do," Smith said. "We wanted to make sure that we got a chance to look at him."

He received a lot of attention from the coaching staff over the bye and a decision is forthcoming on his playing status. The Falcons traded a seventh-round pick in the 2010 draft to St. Louis for Hill. "I think that he has definitely improved since the first day that he got here, which is a positive sign," Smith said. "We'll evaluate the film and see where he is at."

The cornerback play was steady if not spectacular over the first three games. Carolina's Steve Smith and New England's Randy Moss both had more than 100 yards receiving against the Falcons, but were kept out of the end zone.

Smith worked almost exclusively against right cornerback Chris Houston, who came up with a key fourth-quarter interception. Moss worked against Williams and Grimes.

The Falcons could just keep Hill on standby like they did with Domonique Foxworth last season. If things go south in the secondary, they have a quality player to step in if and when he's ready to play.

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Center Todd McClure had to sneak and get some football viewing in over the weekend.

"My wife got mad," McClure said. "It was like you see the guy on ESPN on his wedding day, checking his phone for scores. That was me on the family vacation. I didn't even get to watch the LSU-Georgia game. I watched a little bit of it. I was checking my phone every so often."

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-Over the bye week, former Oklahoma standout and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton went on a road trip to see the Sooners play the Miami Hurricanes.

"The defense played good, but the offense turned the ball over and they turned them into touchdowns," Lofton said.


PASSING OFFENSE: C-plus -- Quarterback Matt Ryan has shown development in his second season. He's hitting on almost 66 percent of his passes and has utilized tight end Tony Gonzalez well. The deep pass has been absent from the attack and wide receiver Roddy White's numbers are down dramatically on his yards per catch from 15.4 to 7.9. Ryan has spread the ball around to nine receivers, five of which are averaging over 10 yards per catch.

RUSHING OFFENSE: D-minus -- Michael Turner has been held under 70 yards in two games. He rushed for 105 yards against Carolina but needed 28 carries. Also, Jerious Norwood missed a game with a concussion and wasn't able to provide a change of pace against the Patriots. The Falcons had to know that after Turner rushed for 1,699 yards that teams would be better prepared. They'll have to adjust their blocking against eight man fronts to the run game untracked.

PASS DEFENSE: B-minus -- The addition of cornerback Brian Williams before the start of the season appears to be another great Thomas Dimitroff pickup. He's did a credible job on Randy Moss and helped to stabilize the unit, which struggled in the secondary. Chris Houston and Brent Grimes have been solid. Free safety Thomas DeCoud, in his first season as a starter, has been a pleasure surprise.

RUSH DEFENSE: C-minus -- They started the season out strong against Miami's Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams and did a credible job. Carolina averaged 5.8 yards carry and New England ran roughshod over them for 168 yards and 4.3 per carry. It's going to be a long season for the defense if teams are able to power the ball at the defense. Gap management is the key for the one-gap 4-3 defense. Losing rookie defensive tackle Peria Jerry to a season-ending knee injury won't help matters.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- The coverage units have played well and returners Eric Weems and Norwood have been electrifying. Punter Michael Koenen shanked a 29-yard punt in the second quarter and New England and placekicker Jason Elam uncharacteristically missed two fields and an extra point in the season opener.

COACHING: C-plus -- The Falcons' defense has been the surprise so far. They appear to have good answers for four of the five starters they sought to replace. The problem spot is defensive tackle. You have to figure that offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey will come up with a scheme to get the running game unhinged and that Matt Ryan will start spraying some deep passes to Roddy White. Hopes of being one of the league's elite offenses are still within their reach.

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