FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons have a troublesome habit of maintaining a lead once they take it.
Coach Dan Quinn saw some improvement in Sunday’s 34-20 win over Tampa Bay, but the issue has lingered since the Falcons blew a 25-point lead to lose the Super Bowl nearly 10 months ago.
Atlanta’s win over Dallas two weeks ago is the only victory that wasn’t decided at the end, but Quinn liked how his team responded against Tampa Bay after Terron Ward lost a fumble early in the fourth quarter.
Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal and Dontari Poe followed with big stops in the red zone, ending Tampa Bay’s next possession. The offense then used up the next five minutes with an 11-play drive that ended with Tevin Coleman’s 14-yard touchdown run.
“It was a one-score game at that point, so I thought we had really clear examples of answering the bell for one another,” Quinn said. “That’s the kind of toughness and identity we’ve been looking for. We’ve been talking about making sure that identity really came to life.”
Quinn and his staff started a plan four weeks ago to improve the offense’s struggles on third downs and in the red zone. They saw improvement in practice, but after putting away Dallas early, the Falcons reverted to old form in the fourth quarter two weeks ago at Seattle.
After the offense settled for a field goal, the defense gave up a quick-strike touchdown that cut the lead to three points. The offense followed by going three-and-out, setting up a nerve-wracking situation that ended with Seattle’s Blair Walsh missing a 52-yard field goal that would’ve sent the game into overtime.
Thanks to star receiver Julio Jones and quarterback Matt Ryan, Sunday’s performance was nearly flawless, except for Ward’s fumble. Ryan led an attack that converted 11 of 14 third-down chances and ranks first in the NFL. The offense converted two of three chances in the red zone, and Jones, with 12 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns, was unstoppable.
The line cleared room for Coleman to rush for 97 yards as the ground game averaged 5.3 yards a week after putting up just 3.0. Even better, Atlanta sealed the game by effectively running the ball on its last five plays.
“We hadn’t done that in 10 games when we had a chance to own it at the end of the game, so offensively I was happy in that regard,” Quinn said. “But we’re nowhere close to where we want to be.”
Atlanta (7-4) will likely lean heavily again on Coleman and Ward this week.
Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman has missed two straight games with a concussion and still might not be able to return when Minnesota (9-2) visits Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Falcons also face a big challenge against Vikings quarterback Case Keenum and a steady receiving group led by Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
Cornerback Desmond Trufant left the Bucs game with a concussion. No. 3 cornerback Brian Poole exited early with a back injury.
If Trufant and Poole aren’t available, C.J. Goodwin would make his second career start with Allen, the free safety, taking snaps at nickel cornerback.
Quinn is eager for his defense to start creating takeaways. Atlanta ranks second to last with three interceptions and is tied for seventh with fumble recoveries. The Falcons have a minus-3 turnover margin, not the kind of result Quinn wants to see entering Week 13.
“To get in the plus you’ve got to force some,” Quinn said. “I thought we had a couple opportunities to get some and we didn’t.”