The Falcons defense has been gashed through the air for 997 yards over the past three games. Victories over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati allowed them to escape intense scrutiny but Sunday's 30-14 loss at Detroit, when quarterback Jon Kitna threw for 321 yards, has generated tremendous concern -- especially since nickel back Kevin Mathis (neck injury) is out for the season.
What can't be overlooked is the Falcons have suffered key injuries at the same positions as last season, when the defense broke down over the second half of the season as the Falcons finished 2-6 in their final eight games.
Defensive end John Abraham could be back as soon as two weeks from abdominal surgery, but that is probably optimistic. Middle linebacker Ed Hartwell did not play against Detroit after starting the past two games -- his only two games -- because of aggravation in his knees, which were arthroscopically "cleansed" during the preseason. His availability could be spotty over the next few weeks.
Now, with Mathis down, rookie Jimmy Williams could be used in nickel packages. Williams has had opportunities to play himself onto the field but he has not capitalized, leaving coaches to stick with veterans.
With the Falcons getting little pass pressure from second-year defensive end Chauncey Davis and nose tackle Grady Jackson, Patrick Kerney and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Rod Coleman have been getting double-teamed, just like last season, when their sack numbers plummeted as the season wore on.
The lack of pressure up front has forced defensive coordinator Ed Donatell to blitz, mainly with strong safety Lawyer Milloy and linebacker Keith Brooking, who has moved to the middle in place of Hartwell. Opposing teams have exploited the Falcons' vacating of the defensive middle via the blitz with short, mid-range and deep crossing routes.
Free safety Chris Crocker routinely has been caught in no-man's land and the corner coverage has been less than reliable
TEAMMATES SUPPORT FRYE: Charlie Frye is learning what life is like in the fast lane of NFL starting quarterbacks. Teams throw everything at you, then fans and media criticize you.
Frye was the darling of the town when he was drafted out of Akron prior to the 2005 season, then just as popular when he started the season as the starting quarterback. But a 2-6 record, 29 sacks and interceptions have some folks wondering.
The players, though, do not.
"Charlie is fine," tight end Kellen Winslow said. "He just has to have good protection. The good quarterbacks in this league, the Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings, they have a lot of protection. We need to do a better job protecting No. 9."
Winslow is right. Frye is on pace to be sacked 58 times, a team record.
But part of the problem is that at Akron he could run around and make a play. In the pros, those plays aren't always there when he runs and the guys chasing him are bigger and faster.
Frye takes too many hits. The coaches know it. His teammates know it. Now Frye has to take that to the field.
"We have to do a good job of protecting Charlie," Winslow said. "And getting the ball out quick."