TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons planned this week's extended trip to the desert when their schedule came out six months ago, hoping the time together would be a good bonding experience.
Now that they're under the sun and among the cactus, they realize the timing was impeccable.
"If there was a week to do it, this would have been the one if I had a crystal ball, say you know what, it could look real ugly for a while so let's go there," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said before the team's first practice at Arizona State's campus Wednesday. "I was happy that happened this week, but the decision was made way back in the spring."
The Falcons have gone on extended bonding trips in the past, including one during the team's Super Bowl run three years ago.
Their desert trip may be more of a regrouping.
Since that Super Bowl run — and subsequent meltdown — Atlanta has been muddled in mediocrity.
The Falcons are 19-21 since winning the AFC and blowing a 25-point lead to New England in the Super Bowl. The 2019 season has been a struggle so far, their only win coming in Week 2 against Philadelphia.
Atlanta's latest loss was perhaps its most disheartening. The Falcons (1-4) gave up nearly 600 yards of offense, failed to pressure quarterback Deshaun Watson, who threw five touchdown passes, and again had trouble getting stops on third downs in a 53-32 loss to Houston.
A trip to the desert may be just what they need.
Instead of flying home from Houston, Atlanta went straight to Arizona, where it will practice at ASU's football facility before Sunday's game against the Cardinals.
"It's off to a good start for us, the energy exactly to get our football aligned," Quinn said. "That's been the real driving force for the week, starting when the coaches got here on Monday and the players arrived today."
The road doesn't get any easier from here.
After Arizona, the Falcons face the Rams, Seahawks, Saints and Panthers, all teams with winning records.
And though the Cardinals are 1-3-1, they are coming off their first victory under first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury, beating the Bengals 26-23 on Zane Gonzalez's last-second field goal.
Arizona also has one of the NFL's most dynamic players in quarterback Kyler Murray.
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick has suffered through some rookie pains but seems to be getting better every week as he gets more comfortable with the NFL game. Murray threw for 253 yards and was Arizona's leading rusher with 93 yards against Cincinnati after Kingsbury continued to add more designed runs into the game plan.
The Falcons are tied for worst in the NFL with five sacks — none the past two weeks — and are allowing teams to convert 56% on third down. Atlanta needs to ramp up the pressure on quarterbacks but facing a running threat like Murray adds another layer of defensive scheming.
"You've got to balance it," Falcons defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. "At times, you've got to pressure him and make him feel uncomfortable. At times, you've got to devote a guy to potentially spy on him, at times you've got to go into max coverage from the standpoint they do have so much spread, so much space out there. A little bit of all that."
The Falcons are hoping the time together helps them figure out a way to make it work — not just against the Cardinals and Murray, but for the rest of the season.
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