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Falcons' short-yardage struggles prove costly

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Falcons' short-yardage struggles prove costly

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) The Falcons' short-yardage woes in their first loss of the season stirred memories of similar struggles the last time they lost - in the playoffs.

In each case, Atlanta couldn't come up with just one yard.

The Falcons couldn't score after they had a second down at the Saints' 1-yard line late in Sunday's 31-27 loss at New Orleans. The Falcons, who had been the NFL's last unbeaten team, fell to 8-1.

In the 24-2 loss at the Giants in last season's NFC wild-card game, the offense was stuffed on two fourth-and-1 quarterback sneaks and a third-and-inches run.

Center Todd McClure bristled Monday when asked if there were parallels between the two losses. McClure said the offensive line is unfairly blamed for the short-yardage struggles.

``That's two totally different ballgames and that's what (upsets) me off more than anything, that you guys are going to write about how bad we are up front, that we can't get in the end zone,'' McClure said.

``But there's more to it than just blocking up front, and that's all I'm going to say about that because I get really frustrated when I hear things and read things, knowing there's more to it than the five guys up front, but we take the brunt of the blame. I don't want to talk about that anymore because I don't want to say anything I'll regret.''

The Saints ranked last in the NFL with their average of 176.5 yards rushing allowed per game before holding the Falcons to 46 yards rushing on 18 carries, an average of 2.6 yards per attempt. Michael Turner had 13 carries for only 15 yards. Jacquizz Rodgers led the team with 29 yards rushing on three carries.

New Orleans led 28-17 through three quarters before the Falcons rallied. Matt Ryan, who passed for a career-best 411 yards with three touchdowns, threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Tony Gonzalez and Matt Bryant added a 20-yard field goal in the final quarter.

Ryan's 9-yard pass to Harry Douglas gave Atlanta a second-and-goal at the 1 just after the 2-minute warning. Ryan's second-down pass for Gonzalez was incomplete, Turner lost a yard on third down, and Saints cornerback Jabari Greer broke up a fourth-down pass for Roddy White.

``We get the ball on the 1, we're expected to get it in,'' McClure said. ``I just get frustrated sometimes over the past couple of years. There's more to it than just lining up and blocking the guys wherever they line up. That's it. I can't talk about it anymore.''

Coach Mike Smith seemed to point to the offensive line in his postgame analysis.

``We are not getting the surge that we need to on the run plays,'' Smith said after the game. ``We've got to be able to move the line of scrimmage on those third down-and-one situations.''

On Monday, Smith said blame can't be pointed to only one part of the offense.

``We've got to do a lot of things better,'' Smith said. ``It's not one position group, it's not one guy, it's the entire offense.''

Smith said the offense ``did not execute well.''

``We had too many unblocked guys in the hole and it's hard to get running that way,'' he said. ``There are a number of reasons why and we addressed those in the meeting today and we'll continue to address them.''

There also were problems on defense.

Smith said the Falcons had four missed tackles on Chris Ivory's 56-yard scoring run. That play turned the momentum after Atlanta's early 10-0 lead.

``You can't have missed tackles or they will lead to explosive plays,'' Smith said. ``We've got to do a better job across the board. It is an issue that has probably been our Achilles' heel.

``It was not for lack of effort. That was a hard-fought football game yesterday.''

The Falcons, who are home this week against the Arizona Cardinals, won't have to field more questions about the possibility of an undefeated season. The players insisted Monday those questions would not have been a distraction.

``I'd much rather be answering those questions being 9-0 than answering these questions being 8-1,'' said cornerback Dunta Robinson.

The Falcons are still in excellent position. They lead the NFC South by three games over Tampa Bay and still boast the NFC's best record, one game better than Chicago.

Robinson said he expects a strong recovery this week.

``We have a veteran football team, so we've won games and we've lost games and it's all about the way you bounce back,'' he said. ``One thing I know about this team in the years that I've been here is that we've always bounced back after a loss and I don't expect anything different. I mean, we're 8-1, you know what I mean, so you can't be too down and you can't be too disappointed about that. ... We're still excited about our future.''

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Interested teams have begun reaching out to John Carlson

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USA TODAY Sports

Interested teams have begun reaching out to John Carlson

Free agency does not start until July 1, but John Carlson's agent is already taking calls from other interested teams.

The interview period began at 12 a.m. on Sunday morning, which means teams are now able to reach out to any potential free agents, but no contracts can be signed until July 1. While Brian MacLellan said Friday that a new deal with Carlson to keep him in Washington was "really close," Carlson's agent, Rick Curran, has made it clear there was no deal in place yet as of Sunday.

So does this mean Carlson now has one foot out the door?

Not necessarily.

At this point in the negotiation, Carlson has a major advantage and that advantage is time. Sunday's interview period is just another way to hold the Caps' feet to the fire. The closer we get to July 1, the more pressure the team is under to get a deal done.

But the Caps still have some leverage too.

“I love it here and all that,” Carlson said during on breakdown day. “I want to stay here, but there's more to it than that.”

By rule, as his current team, the Caps are the only team that can offer Carlson an eight-year deal.

So Carlson may have turned up the heat a few degrees on the Caps, but it's not time for fans to worry just yet.

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Nationals look to avoid sweep against Phillies on Sunday night

Nationals look to avoid sweep against Phillies on Sunday night

WASHINGTON -- Having already won their first series at Nationals Park since April 2016, the Philadelphia Phillies will go for the sweep of Washington on Sunday night.

Phillies right-hander Nick Pivetta (4-6, 4.08 ERA) faces Nationals right-hander Jefry Rodriguez (0-0, 4.66).

Pivetta was drafted by the Nationals in 2013 and went to the Phillies in 2015 as part of the Jonathan Papelbon trade.

After struggling for three straight starts -- giving up 13 runs in 14 innings -- Pivetta allowed two runs and four hits in 7 1/3 innings of a no-decision against the St. Louis Cardinals last time out, striking out a career-high 13 batters.

"That's some of the best stuff I've seen him have all year," catcher Andrew Knapp told mlb.com. "The curveball was electric."

Pivetta got 11 swings and misses with the curveball.

"It was nice to have it back," Pivetta told mlb.com. "It all started with my delivery. I was staying up through it, not trying to rush too much and it worked out."

It his first start -- and second big-league appearance -- the 24-year-old Rodriguez picked up a win against the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday. He allowed five runs, four hits and three walks in five innings.

Rodriguez and Satuday's losing pitcher, Erick Fedde, are filling in for injured starters Stephen Strasburg and Jeremy Hellickson.

The Phillies have outscored the Nationals 17-5 in the fist two games of the series. On Saturday, Maikel Franco had four hits and Carlos Santana homered to back Aaron Nola in a 5-3 victory.

"That was just a tremendous all-around baseball game," Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said of Franco. "It's so interesting how we've been looking for him to be not just a hitter but a defender and a baserunner and an all-around athlete."

Franco drove in a run and scored twice, including the go-ahead run when he scored just ahead of the tag on Jesmuel Valentin's sacrifice fly.

The Phillies, who have won six of seven, pounded out double-digit hits for the second day in a row in Washington.

"They have a lot of patient hitters," Fedde said of the Phillies. "I think that's what makes it tough. Guys aren't swinging at bunch of junk, so you have to attack them."

The Phillies have now won four straight series for the first time since May 2016 and are 2-0 in what will be a stretch of 10 games against the Nationals and the New York Yankees.

Anthony Rendon homered and Daniel Murphy had a two-run single for Washington, which has lost three of four while scoring nine runs.

"Look, I've got all the confidence in the world we're going to start hitting," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "We'll start scoring some runs. Right now, the bullpen is a little beat up. We've got to get them going again."

Rendon is doing his part. In his las 15 games, he is batting .382 with seven doubles, two homers and 12 RBIs.

Hellickson (right groin strain) will make a rehab start Sunday for Class A Potomac and then is expected to rejoin the Nationals' rotation.

Hernandez said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman (right oblique strain) is about a week from beginning a rehab assignment.