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Ryan becomes vocal as losses pile up
Falcons Buccaneers Fo Heal WEB
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) yells back to the bench area during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday in Tampa, Fla. - photo by Associated Press

Falcons (3-6) at Carolina (3-6-1)
1 p.m., Sunday

    FLOWERY BRANCH — With the losses piling up for the Atlanta Falcons, Matt Ryan felt the need to speak up.
    Never mind his numbers, which are as solid as ever.
    Matty Ice knows he's the face of the franchise.
    It falls on him to lead a turnaround.
    "He's not becoming something that he's not," running back Steven Jackson said Wednesday.
    "But he's becoming more of a vocal leader, more so to reinforce some small detail things, some things that may get overlooked. We don't have time for things to be overlooked, so he's making it a point to point those things out and right the ship."
    The Falcons have no complaints about Ryan's performance.
    His quarterback rating is on pace to be the second-highest of his seven-year career.
    His passing numbers — 2,525 yards, 16 touchdowns, eight interceptions — are right in line with his usual production.
    But Atlanta has won just seven of 25 games over the past two seasons, including a 3-6 mark this year.
    For Ryan, that's simply unacceptable.
    "You've got to deliver winning performances," Ryan said. "We haven't done collectively — and personally — a good enough job of that across the board. But we've got seven games to go. The way that we play, the way that I play, in the next seven games will tell the story of our football team and myself personally this year."
    Amazingly, the Falcons are only a game behind first-place New Orleans in the anemic NFC South, so the playoffs are still very much a possibility.
    But this team has done little over the season and a half to indicate that it's worthy of a postseason appearance.
    Atlanta struggled to a 4-12 mark in 2013, the first losing record of Ryan's career.
    This season wouldn't be any more promising if not for a pair of victories over the woeful Tampa Bay Bucs and the geographic good fortune of being in a division where everyone is below .500.
    "As a quarterback, you play a big role. Your fingerprint is kind of all over a game," Ryan said. "I've always felt like I've got to pull my weight. However much it is, I've got to pull it."
    For the 29-year-old Ryan, that means being more assertive everywhere — in the locker room, on the practice field, in the huddle.
    He's now the fourth-oldest starter on offense, taking snaps from an undrafted rookie center (James Stone) and protected by a battered line that has lost five players to season-ending injuries.

"I think it changes with the people who are around," Ryan said. "Each team, each locker room, is different from year to year. I think leadership needs to be flexible. You need to be able to adapt to the guys that are in your locker room. I've needed to be different at different times. At the right opportunity, sometimes you have to speak up.

"And sometimes," he added, breaking into a big smile, "you need to keep your mouth shut."

His nickname may be Matty Ice, but offensive guard Justin Blalock said that is a huge misconception.

Make no mistake: Ryan has a burning desire to win.

"He has you guys fooled," Blalock snickered to a reporter. "He's pretty fiery, I think."

Despite all the injuries, the guys up front have done a better job of protecting Ryan than they did a year ago, when he was sacked a career-high 44 times and took more than 200 hits after getting rid of the ball. This season, he's been sacked 18 times.

"We need to allow him to play with confidence, step into his throws, be confident that he's going to have time to make his requisite reads and all those things," Blalock said.

This hodgepodge of a line is starting to show signs of meshing together. Barring any injuries in practice leading up to Sunday's game at Carolina (3-6-1), the Falcons will send out the same five starters for the third game in a row.

That hasn't happened all season.

Now, it's on Ryan to take advantage of the continuity.

"It's kind of different how this season has shaken out, specifically within our division," he said. "But we're right in the mix. We've got everything right in front of us."

Notes: For the first time under coach Mike Smith, the Falcons voted on captains before the end of the year. Ryan and receiver Roddy White were selected on offense, Paul Worrilow and Jonathan Babineaux from defense, and Eric Weems and Antone Smith on special teams. Those six players will wear a "C'' on their jerseys the rest of the season. ... Receivers Harry Douglas (foot) and Devin Hester (ankle) did not practice Wednesday.

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