FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Mike Smith is facing the biggest challenge of his six seasons as the Falcons' coach.
The Falcons never lost back-to-back regular-season games during Smith's first five seasons. Suddenly, the Falcons have lost three straight games as they prepare for Sunday's visit from Tampa Bay.
Matt Ryan and other players say it has been important to see Smith's demeanor remain steady during the crisis.
"Smitty, one thing about him in six years, he is consistent," Ryan said Wednesday. "Day in and day out, he comes to work positive and ready to go. I think players appreciate that, respect that and I think feed off of that and understand he's taken this approach and we need to do the same. We need to come in here positive and upbeat and ready to work."
The Falcons are 1-4 one year after playing in the NFC championship game. Injuries to key players have added significant difficulty to Smith's challenge.
Julio Jones, who was the NFL's leading receiver, had surgery on Monday for his season-ending foot injury. Three more starters on offense — running back Steven Jackson, receiver Roddy White and left tackle Sam Baker — did not participate in Wednesday's practice. Linebacker Akeem Dent and backup tight end Chase Coffman also were held out.
Jackson has missed three straight games with a hamstring injury. Baker (knee) did not play in the 30-28 loss to the Jets on Oct. 7 before the Falcons' bye week. White, already limited by an ankle sprain, strained his hamstring against the Jets.
Running back Jason Snelling returned from a concussion this week. Smith on Wednesday left open the possibility other injured players could return this week.
"I think we accomplished what we needed to accomplish during the bye week in terms of our evaluation," Smith said. "Now we've got some guys who have gotten some rest. Hopefully we'll get some guys back who have missed some time."
White has never missed a game in his nine NFL seasons. His streak of 133 consecutive regular-season games played is on the line this week.
The losses and injuries might be expected to cause signs of strain, especially since any losing streak is a new experience for Smith. Safety Thomas DeCoud said players would panic if they saw any changes to Smith's approach.
"That would be scary for us if we saw that coach Smith was changing his demeanor, and he's not doing that at all," DeCoud said. "He's helping us keep that even keel. If he was panicking it would go against everything that he's preaching.
"It's really good to have a coach who knows how to keep his cool and makes sure the message stays clear for the team so we can work on getting this thing right."
Smith said he just tries to stay with the approach that has earned him a 57-28 record. He passed Dan Reeves in 2012 for the most wins in Falcons history.
"You do what you always do," Smith said. "I don't know that I put any thought into it. My job is to prepare the football team for them to go out and play their best. I know the way we've done it in the past and I'll continue to do that."
The Falcons took a streak of three straight playoff seasons into 2013. This week they're playing to stay out of last place in the NFC South, but Ryan said the recent history of success gives players confidence.
"Obviously we're not where we want to be, but you have to trust in what you do and you have to trust that we're going to make the plays," Ryan said. "I think remaining confident is incredibly important and we've got a whole lot of past success to keep us confident. Guys need to trust in that and trust in the process and just try to be a little more detail-oriented."