FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons have put themselves in quite a bind. Now, even though coach Mike Smith says nothing is off the table, don't look for a bunch of major changes.
This isn't baseball, where a struggling team might make a blockbuster trade to shake things up.
The Falcons (2-4) are pretty much stuck with the guys they've got — and they're not getting the job done as the team heads into what could be its toughest stretch of the season.
Smith talked about a wide array of problems Monday after Atlanta's third straight loss, a 27-13 setback to the Chicago Bears. A defense that gave up huge chunks of yardage. An offense that persistently faced third-and-long, dropped too many passes, didn't run the ball effectively, and struggled to protect quarterback Matt Ryan.
"I'm frustrated, discouraged, disappointed," Smith said. "I know we can play a whole lot better than we've played."
For now, the changes are likely to be more subtle than dramatic. The coach seemed to indicate a simplifying of the defense, pointing to several communication breakdowns that allowed the Bears to rip off big plays. Five of Jay Cutler's completions accounted for a staggering 197 yards.
"We've given up way too many explosive plays" Smith said. "Is it the scheme? Are we asking guy to do too much? Is it their ability to execute the scheme? If you look at different plays you get different answers. We've got to be much better at it."
From a personnel standpoint, the Falcons don't have a lot of options.
At defensive end, Jonathan Massaquoi appears to be getting more playing time at the expense of Kroy Biermann. Offensively, the most pressing issue is figuring out a way to get more touches for running back Antone Smith, who has scored five touchdowns this season — all on plays of at least 38 yards.
"You get what you earn in the NFL," Mike Smith said. "We've got to make decisions based on who gives us the best opportunity to win."
The Falcons next travel to Baltimore to face the Ravens (4-2), who are coming off an impressive 48-17 victory over Tampa Bay. Atlanta better get used to life on the road, because that game is followed by a weeklong trip to London for a contest against Detroit (4-2).
After a bye week, the Falcons play two more road games, against NFC South foes Carolina (3-2-1) and Tampa Bay (1-5). They don't play another game at the Georgia Dome until Nov. 23 against Cleveland — four days before Thanksgiving. It's the longest stretch without a true home game in franchise history.
Perhaps the biggest concern for the Falcons is the way they've closed out games. Over the last four weeks, they've been outscored 49-0 in the fourth quarter.
"We're close, but we need to finish," center Peter Konz said. "That's what we're focused on — finishing."
Considering the Falcons have won only six of 22 games since nearly reaching the Super Bowl during the 2012 season, they also have to be concerned about dissension in the locker room. That doesn't seem to be a problem at the moment, but a few more losses could stir up some grumbling.
"That's what losers do," safety Dwight Lowery said. "We're not here to be losers. We're here to win. Everybody is committed. These kind of times need to bring a team closer. We're starting to go through the middle part of the schedule, which really makes or breaks your year, in my opinion. We have to come together and figure out what it is we need to do in order to compete every Sunday, finish games, not make the errors we're making, trust each other, and play to the best of our ability."
Receiver Roddy White conceded that all the players are pressing a bit.
"Everybody is trying to make the play that's going to win the game, and we ain't making any plays," he said. "We've got to just sit back, kind of relax and just execute the plays like they're drawn up, instead of going out there doing our own thing."
But it was clear from the tension in Smith's voice that this is no time for relaxing. He wants everyone playing with a sense of urgency before this losing streak really gets out of hand.
"We're judged on one thing, and one thing only," the coach said. "We all know what that is."