FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons are an imperfect 4-0.
That was the message from coach Mike Smith on Monday, one day after Atlanta's 30-28 win over Carolina.
Matt Ryan, whose health is crucial to the Falcons' continued success, was sacked a career-high seven times.
Smith said the defense gave up too many explosive plays to Cam Newton and the Panthers.
Smith also critiqued himself. He says he was too emotional when he grabbed assistant coach Ray Hamilton as the Falcons had only 10 defensive players on the field in the closing seconds after Matt Bryant's 40-yard field goal with 5 seconds remaining gave the Falcons the lead.
"We were trying to get 11 guys on the field," Smith said. "We only had 10 guys out there on the field. One thing I'm not going to do, I'm not going to have our team at a disadvantage before the snap. We were trying to make sure we handled that situation."
Even so, Smith said he shouldn't have grabbed or bumped Hamilton.
"There was something that happened and it was in the heat of the battle," he said. "I've had a conversation with coach Hamilton.
"I try to be 100 percent. I wasn't 100 percent yesterday. I've got to do better. I've got to be better."
Smith said his next move was calculated and even rehearsed.
Carolina was about to line up from its 20-yard line when Smith called a timeout — even though the Falcons were out of timeouts.
Smith said his called timeout was a planned maneuver because the NFL doesn't penalize a team for calling too many timeouts. As an official came over to remind Smith he was out of timeouts, the Falcons had the time needed to get the 11th defensive player on the field.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was sacked by John Abraham on the final play, preserving the win.
"There's a lot of pressure out there but that's what we signed up for," Smith said. "I thought our guys handled it very well. We've got some things that we've got to do better. I've got some things I've got to do better in terms of managing the end of the game. ... It's something we're all going to learn from in terms of what we've got to improve on."
The Falcons play Sunday at Washington.
Despite the imperfections, Atlanta leads second-place Carolina and Tampa Bay by three games in the NFC South.
"I'm aware of it but I don't pay attention to it," Smith said when asked about the big lead in the division. "This early in the season you've got to concern yourself with your team. You don't even think about what is going on with the other teams until you're getting ready to play them.
"We've started out fast and it's just a start."
The seven sacks allowed are the most obvious concern. Ryan was sacked only four times in the team's first three games.
"We gave up way too many sacks but they weren't all on the offensive line, I can assure you of that," Smith said. "It was an effort that everybody was a part of."
Smith said if wide receivers don't run proper routes, Ryan "is going to be left with nowhere to go with it and have to eat it. That happened a couple times."
Ryan still passed for 369 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He set up Bryant's go-ahead field goal by driving the team 77 yards with no timeouts in the final minute. The drive started at the Falcons' 1.
It was Ryan's 17th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime in his five-year career.
"We're a quarter of the way through the season and we're right where we need to be in terms of our record," Ryan said Sunday. "I think that in terms of our play we've got a lot of improving to do.
"We made some mistakes. Ultimately we made enough big plays to win, but I think that everyone is of the mindset that we need to get back to work. We feel like we can get a lot better and that's what we're going to set out to do this week."
Smith said cornerback Christopher Owens, who hasn't played since suffering a concussion in the Week 2 win at Denver, is expected to return to practice this week.
Owens was the team's nickel back before his injury. The Falcons have used both Dominique Franks and Robert McClain as the fifth defensive back on passing downs the last two weeks. McClain played ahead of Franks against Carolina.
"We'll have some competition going on at the nickel back position," Smith said.