FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is preparing for what could be his toughest challenge this season.
If he thought it was tough scoring on goal-to-go in the season-opening loss at Philadelphia, Sarkisian knows this week might be more difficult as Atlanta tries to avoid becoming a one-dimensional passing attack at Washington.
Quarterback Matt Ryan needs a play-action threat to keep the Redskins (5-2) from locking down all afternoon on his receivers, so the Falcons (3-4) must find a way to establish the ground game against a tough defensive front.
The outlook does not look promising. The Falcons rank 30th in yards rushing. The Redskins rank second in defending the run.
Devonta Freeman, Atlanta's top running back, was lost to groin surgery earlier this month. Starting guards Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco are out for the season with injuries.
"Each game takes on its own personality in essence," Sarkisian said Thursday. "So it is beneficial when you can hang with it and stick with it, but there are times when we've got to do what is best for us right now. You just try to figure it out as it goes, and it's all part of making those decisions at those moments when they come and try to do what's best for the team."
Sarkisian insists he won't press if Atlanta struggles to run the ball early in the game. He plans to keep trying to mix it in on later drives.
The Falcons have one of the NFL's premier passing games with Ryan throwing to Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper, so the team will stick with what it does best.
"Sometimes to run the football you have to establish it at times and then finally something does pop, but there's other times that this drive is so important right now, let's do what is best for us at this moment right now," Sarkisian said. "And that may be to run it more and that may be throw it more."
The Redskins are loaded up front. Ends Matt Ioannidis and Jonathan Allen and linebacker Ryan Kerrigan have combined for 14 sacks and 22 quarterback hits. Nose tackle Da'Ron Payne figures to make it a long day for guards Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland.
"There are a lot of twists and stunts and games that they do up front that make it challenging on your guys up front," Sarkisian said. "It's not always just the one-on-one rush. They start pairing two guys, three guys together, sometimes even all four of them together, so they really do it cohesively. The challenge for us is to make sure we're protecting cohesively."
Sarkisian likes how third-year veteran Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith have combined to fill Freeman's spot. He thinks that Schweitzer has done a respectable job in five games for Levitre, and Garland, who started the final five games last season, has plenty of experience as he prepares to take over for Fusco.
Sarkisian was pleased with how Coleman responded on a third-and-1 run early in the fourth quarter of Atlanta's previous game, a narrow win over the New York Giants. Running off right tackle, Coleman sprinted for a 30-yard touchdown that's one of the few rushing highlights for Atlanta this season.
"That type of explosiveness we know is there in our run game," Sarkisian said. "We've just to keep hunting and pecking until it comes."
Jones sees no reason to worry. He believes Atlanta will find ways to score regardless.
"The Redskins haven't played the 2018 Atlanta Falcons, so we're going in there and we're going to try to run the ball," Jones said. "We're going to run. We're going to pass. They've got to stop us on Sunday."
Notes: Sanu (hip) was held out of practice a day after being a limited participant. ... CB Robert Alford (ankle) missed practice for the second straight day. Coach Dan Quinn said he was injured against the Giants but didn't want to come out. Isaiah Oliver will start if Alford can't play. ... PK Matt Bryant did not participate, and it appears likely that Giorgio Tavecchio will replace him for the second straight game.