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A bad case of the drops
FALCONS 5 col bw
Roddy White loses a Michael Vick pass in the end zone in front of New Orleans Saints cornerback Jason Craft during the first-quarter in Atlanta, Sunday. - photo by Associated Press
    FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — When the Atlanta Falcons wrapped up their two-hour practice Wednesday, most of the players headed for the locker room.
    Roddy White stayed behind. So did Michael Jenkins and Ashley Lelie.
    The Falcons’ embattled receiving corps got in some extra work after practice, which certainly seemed appropriate after their dismal performance last weekend. The trio combined to drop five passes in a 31-13 loss to New Orleans — all of which would have gone for first downs if only they had managed to hold on to the ball.
    In fact, White might have scored a crucial touchdown early in fourth quarter after finding himself all alone at the Saints 10 when the defender fell down. But he let the pass from Michael Vick slip from his hands, prompting coach Jim Mora to fall to his knees in disbelief.
    ‘‘For anything to grow, it has to die,’’ receivers coach George Stewart said, trying to sound optimistic in a morose sort of way. ‘‘Hopefully, we’ve gone as low as we can go, because it feels like we’re at rock bottom.’’
    With his team mired in a four-game losing streak heading to the final month, Mora expressed confidence in his receivers but also made it clear that he won’t stand for many more performances like the one against New Orleans.
    The Falcons (5-6), still only one game back in the NFC wild-card race despite their November woes, head to Washington on Sunday to face the Redskins (4-7).
    ‘‘We can’t rule anything out,’’ Mora said. ‘‘I’m not going to sit here and tell you everything is good. We’ve got to start catching the ball.’’
    With that in mind, White lingered on the practice field to take some long throws from backup quarterbacks Matt Schaub and D.J. Shockley. That was followed by some short, quick tosses from Stewart, before the two of them huddled together for a pep talk.
    On an adjacent field, Jenkins and Lelie positioned themselves in front of the JUGS machines, which spit out extra balls for them to catch.
    ‘‘These next five games, we have to be complete players,’’ White said. ‘‘We have to catch every ball that’s thrown our way. We have to get downfield and make plays.’’
    Vick has stayed away from any public criticism of his receivers, though he was so frustrated after the last game that he made an obscene gesture to heckling Atlanta fans as he walked off the field.
    While Vick rushed for 166 yards against the Saints — just 7 off his own NFL record — he was credited with completing only 9-of-24 passes for 84 yards. He is the 25th-rated quarterback in the NFL, and his bumbling receivers aren’t helping matters.
    ‘‘I have confidence in them,’’ Vick insisted. ‘‘I know they can catch the ball. It’s all about carrying it over to the game. You can’t just do it in practice.’’
    But practice is where it all begins, and Stewart is working overtime to instill a sense of confidence in a group that has combined for 66 catches, 912 yards and five touchdowns. By comparison, Houston’s Andre Johnson leads the league with 84 receptions. Cincinnati’s Chad Johnson has accounted for 1,055 yards receiving all by himself. Seattle’s Darrell Jackson has nearly twice as many TD catches (nine) as the Falcons’ receivers.
    Once again, the lack of an outside threat has forced the Falcons to rely on tight end Alge Crumpler (37 receptions, 526 yards, six TDs) as their most reliable pass catcher.
    ‘‘Some people want to be in that position where they’re on the spot, where they have a chance to shine and be the hero,’’ Vick said. ‘‘That’s what we’ve got to find. I’m pretty sure one of the guys in our locker room is that guy. It just hasn’t come out.’’
    Jenkins and White were both late first-round picks, but neither has developed like the Falcons hoped. Lelie was acquired in a preseason trade after putting up some big numbers in Denver, but his skills have eroded in Atlanta’s run-oriented offense; it seems highly unlikely that he’ll return when his contract is up at the end of the season.
    Stewart is concerned about the receivers’ state of mind, comparing it to former baseball pitcher Rick Ankiel, who suddenly lost the ability to throw strikes, or a golfer who comes down with the yips when he lines up a putt.
    Also, the receivers have some technical things to work on, such as keeping their eyes on the ball until they make the catch. White admitted that he got caught looking toward the end zone when he dropped that long pass against the Saints.
    ‘‘We’re trying to get upfield before we catch the ball,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s been a bad habit for us.’’
    Jenkins has 28 catches for 322 yards and all five TDs scored by the wideouts. White (20 catches, 283 yards) and Lelie (18 catches, 307 yards) have yet to make it to the end zone, leading to fierce criticism of both Vick and the guys who are paid to catch his passes.
    ‘‘We know our teammates are behind us, but I’m sure they’re frustrated just like we are,’’ White said. ‘‘We’ve got to go out there and prove ourselves. We’ve got to make the plays we’re supposed to make.’’