For Smith, Atlanta’s season-long inability to play a mistake-free third quarter wiped out the gains made in an improved final period Monday night.
“The explosive plays have been an issue for us all season long,” Smith said Tuesday. “We continue to not defend the deep balls as well as we need to or we have a missed tackle on a running play. We’ve given up way too many explosive plays.”
The Falcons have been outscored by 74 points in the second half this year, due to big plays allowed by the defense, abundant three-and-outs dragging down the offense and untimely penalties hurting both sides.
Such was the case against San Francisco, which capitalized on the miscues to keep Atlanta from winning consecutive games for the first time since last December.
On the opening series of the third, the Falcons would have forced a three-and-out had defensive end Osi Umenyiora not been flagged for being offside.
Colin Kaepernick connected with Michael Crabtree on two of the next three plays for 63 total yards, and the 49ers tied the score one snap later on Anquan Boldin’s 10-yard touchdown catch.
“Once they got the momentum, it was hard to get it back,” rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “They had the crowd behind them. They’re a good team. We were holding them for a while. We couldn’t get the stops when we needed them.”
Atlanta’s offense followed with a punt, and rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow’s subsequent interference penalty on third down led to a field goal that gave San Francisco the lead for good.
The flag on Worrilow looked questionable to safety William Moore, but the Falcons likewise were undermined in the third by two additional catches by Crabtree that netted 41 yards and a scramble by Kaepernick that gained 22.
Midway through the fourth, Kendall Hunter ran past Stephen Nicholas’ tackle attempt to break off a 44-yard run and set up Frank Gore’s 1-yard run for a 10-point lead.
“That one play, we have to make the tackle and have communication all the way around,” Moore said. “It was just one missed play, and you see what happened.”
The Falcons (4-11) have one last opportunity to change their second-half fortunes when playoff-bound Carolina (11-4) visits the Georgia Dome on Sunday.
Smith knows that close won’t be good enough against the Panthers team that’s won two straight and 10 off 11, particularly after watching the scenario play out in the last regular-season game at Candlestick Park.
In the fourth quarter, Matt Ryan orchestrated two long drives that ended with touchdown passes to Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, but after the Falcons recovered an onside kick, the quarterback’s pass to Harry Douglas was tipped and intercepted by NaVorro Bowman for an 89-yard TD return.
At least the yearlong nightmare is almost over for Atlanta, which finished last season 10 yards shy of the Super Bowl in a narrow NFC title game loss to San Francisco.
“We’re just not making the plays when they’re presented to us to win those types of games,” Smith said. “And that’s something that we have to continue to work on and get right for this last game against Carolina.”