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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Coach Mike Smith keeps searching for answers to fix the Atlanta Falcons.
That's been nearly impossible to accomplish during a five-game losing streak.
With a 2-9 record that's worst in the NFC, Smith can only hope a few days off will give his players a fresh perspective when they return to practice on Tuesday.
Almost nothing has gone right for a team that last season finished 10 yards shy of the Super Bowl.
In a 17-13 home loss Thursday to New Orleans, the Falcons kept the score close, but still had too many breakdowns pass protection and missed too many tackles to win.
"We didn't play very good football in some phases last night, and didn't get the outcome that we wanted," Smith said. "But like with all games, I think there were some positives that took place."
Unfortunately for the Falcons, those positives were few.
Steven Jackson, a major offseason acquisition, finally ran for his first Atlanta touchdown, and the offense committed no turnovers.
And a bright spot for the defense was holding New Orleans to one third-down conversion in five second-half attempts.
Otherwise, many of the same problems that have dogged the team since Week 1 flared up again.
Quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked five times and hit 10 times, due in large part to faulty play on the offensive line and right guard Garrett Reynolds.
The defense missed 14 tackles, gave up an average of 12 yards per catch and showed why it began the night ranked 30th against the run, 29th in scoring and 22nd against the pass.
Strong safety William Moore suffered one of the night's most embarrassing mistakes.
Trying to defend Jimmy Graham on a deep route early in the second quarter, Moore bit on the tight end's double move and gave up a 44-yard touchdown.
Moore, a Pro Bowl alternative pick last year who signed a lucrative new contract in the offseason, suffered the indignity of getting carried the final 3 yards on Graham's back.
Moore could only watch on the big Georgia Dome screen as Graham, borrowing a post-TD celebration popularized by Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, jumped and dunked the ball over the crossbar.
"On one hand, I think we did a pretty good just surrendering 17 points to an explosive offense," Moore said. "We just didn't make enough plays as a whole to pull out the victory. We will keep working to get better and find a way to win ballgames."
Gonzalez, who put off retirement in March to return for his final NFL season, at least felt as if the whole team was collectively trying hard to win.
That was hardly the case in lopsided defeats the previous three games against Arizona, Carolina, Seattle and Tampa Bay.
"It was a total change of attitude from the last three weeks," said Gonzalez, the NFL's No. 2 career-leading receiver. "We've been kind of getting blown out. Going up against a good football team like this, I'm proud of the way the guys played. We just got to make those plays."
Ryan was harassed in the pocket most of the night.
The two-time Pro Bowl QB avoided interceptions after beginning the game with nine picks over the previous four weeks, but many times he didn't have time to set his feet. And often when he did, receivers were covered, and he had nowhere to go.
Smith and his staff still haven't found a solution at right guard.
Reynolds, the lineman most directly responsible for Ryan's problems, was mauled so much by defensive end Akiem Hicks that the coaching staff pulled him early in the third quarter and restarted the proverbial carousel.
Before last week's loss at Tampa Bay, Reynolds was benched and Konz was moved from center to right guard, but Konz played so poorly that Reynolds replaced him.
This time, Reynolds started but was done for the night by the second series of the third quarter when Konz took his place. Joe Hawley has started the last two games at center.
"We gave up some sacks in the second half," Smith said. "I think we were OK with our protection in the first half. In the second half, way too many sacks, way too many hits."
Ryan, like Gonzalez, tried to look ahead in hopes that the Falcons are getting better, even if just slightly.
"We had a couple of different drives stall for different reasons, but it's just part of the deal," Ryan said. "We have to find ways to extend more drives and to score more points, and I think that has to be the focus for us."
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