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Fixing the Falcons starts with protecting, sacking the quarterback

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Hooper returns to practice for Falcons (1:47)

With Austin Hooper back at practice after missing three games, Field Yates and Matthew Berry examine the fantasy possibilities for the Falcons TE. (1:47)

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Pro Bowl center Alex Mack put the Atlanta Falcons' 3-9 season in proper perspective.

Sure, the Falcons have been eliminated from the playoffs and might finish at the bottom of the NFC South. But for Mack, that doesn't mean the players should play uninspired football over the final four games.

"There's a lot to play for, and I think we have a lot of pride," Mack told ESPN. "Losing's not fun. Winning is fun. I don't know if we need a whole lot more motivation than that.

"People's jobs are on the line. How you play affects what your next contract is. There's tons of motivation beyond the ultimate goal of the playoffs and winning [the Super Bowl]."

We'll see if Mack's words represent a collective feeling inside the locker room, starting with Sunday's home game against Carolina (1 p.m. ET, Fox). The Falcons have to make progress on their shortcomings so they don't carry over into next season -- no matter who is coaching the team in 2020.

Fixing the pass protection

The protection of quarterback Matt Ryan, or lack thereof, became magnified after Ryan was sacked nine times -- tying a career-high -- in a Thanksgiving night loss to the New Orleans Saints. Coach Dan Quinn pinned two apiece on tackle Jake Matthews and rookie tackle Kaleb McGary.

Through 12 games, Ryan has been sacked 38 times, four fewer than all of last season and six fewer than his career-high of 44 (2013). Only four quarterbacks have been sacked more than Ryan: Arizona's Kyler Murray (41), Tampa Bay's Jameis Winston (40) and Carolina's Kyle Allen (39). Ryan has the third-most dropbacks (500) behind Winston (532) and New England's Tom Brady (508).

What's the solution? Part of it could be getting healthy. Rookie first-rounder Chris Lindstrom, who started the season at right guard, returned to practice Monday for the first time since breaking his right foot in the opener at Minnesota. Quinn stopped short of declaring Lindstrom ready to go for this Sunday, but having Lindstrom back on the field is a positive. One has to wonder how the line would have fared had he played a full season. And with him back, rookies Lindstrom and McGary can build chemistry for the future.

Remember, the Falcons made an emphasis to fortify the line last offseason, and that started with the additions of veteran guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown in free agency. When asked which players he was pleased with along the line, Quinn omitted Carpenter and Brown while praising Mack, Matthews and McGary. The Falcons signed Carpenter to a four-year, $21 million contract ($9.25 million guaranteed) and Brown to a three-year, $18.75 million contract ($12.75 million guaranteed). Matthews is signed through 2023 at $14.5 million per year, while Mack, 34, is due to make $8 million next season, the last year of his deal.

Former NFL agent Joel Corry, now a contract and salary-cap expert, offered his take on how the Falcons should proceed with the line from a financial standpoint.

"The Falcons didn't do any favors on structuring those two contracts," Corry said of Carpenter and Brown. "Brown already has $4.5 million of his $4.75 million 2020 base salary fully guaranteed. And $2.5 million of Carpenter's $3.75 million '20 base salary is already fully guaranteed. Since there aren't any post-June 1 designations or cap relief with releases after June 1 in 2020 because it's the final year of the CBA, getting rid of them doesn't help from a cap standpoint.

"Atlanta's cap situation may result in parting with Mack. I would try to trade him for some of draft pick or picks. The Falcons need all the cheap talent they can get."

Could Lindstrom be an option at center if the Falcons do move on from Mack? He worked out at center some during his private pre-draft workout with the Falcons.

However the line comes together moving forward, it has to protect better. And it has to open more holes in the running game.

Fixing the run game

When offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was asked Monday what he could do better, schematically, to help alleviate the pressure on Ryan, his response was clear and to the point.

"Everyone would say it starts with the run game, being able to run the football," Koetter said. "Second would be play-action. Third would be your screen game. Fourth would be your chip game, how you help the tackle."

The Falcons currently rank 30th out of 32 teams in rushing at 74.3 yards per game and 28th in rushing yards per play at 3.52 yards per carry. The Falcons rushed for more than 100 yards just twice this season: at New Orleans (143 yards on 34 carries) and at Arizona (103 yards on 25 carries).

It's hard for a team to stick to the run, however, if it falls behind early and has to play catch-up, or if the holes aren't open, or if the backs aren't making the right reads.

"We'd like to run the ball more efficiently and more explosively," Koetter said. "If we take more advantage of our opportunities that are presented to us earlier in the game, hopefully we're not down two scores at the end of the game where we can't stay with the running game."

The Falcons would like to see Devonta Freeman get back into a rhythm after missing action because of a foot sprain, although Freeman's future with the team is unclear. He has three more years and $21 million remaining on his contract and has a cap number of $9.5 million next season. Backup Ito Smith was placed on season-ending injury reserve with head and neck injuries, so his health has to be a concern. Brian Hill has shown flashes but might not be the long-term answer. And rookie Qadree Ollison hasn't gotten a true opportunity to show his value despite scoring two touchdowns on 12 rushing attempts.

One positive to keep an eye on regarding the run game? Koetter said McGary has been solid blocking all the way to the second level with his run-blocking, an area McGary needs to continue to utilize as a strength.

Fixing the pass rush

There might not be a quick solution to the Falcons' pass-rush woes, which will have to be an offseason emphasis.

The Falcons have 18 sacks, second-to-last in the league to Miami's 16. The defense teased everyone with 11 sacks and 21 quarterback hits in back-to-back November wins over New Orleans and Carolina. But they went a four-game stretch from Weeks 4-7 without a sack and have gone the last two games without a sack.

Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett has brought the most consistent pressure, to no surprise, and has a team-leading 5.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits. But no one along the defensive front has been able to match Jarrett's high level of play.

Former NFL sack champion Vic Beasley Jr., Quinn's first draft pick in 2015 (eighth overall), has shown flashes but seems destined to play elsewhere next season as he completes the final year of his contract. The Falcons didn't pick up his fifth-year option at $12.81 million.

The best thing the Falcons can hope for is to see defensive end Takk McKinley take another step over the next four games with technique and consistency. McKinley, who has been held back by a shoulder injury, has 1.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits in 472 defensive snaps played. He has gotten in the backfield at times but has been unable to close with sacks.

The Falcons might want to take a closer look at what rookie John Cominsky can add to the rush, although he has been hampered by an ankle injury.

With the strong possibility of a top 10 draft pick coming, the organization has to think about an impact pass-rusher. Beyond projected No. 1 overall pick Chase Young from Ohio State, there's no consensus on who's an elite pass-rusher. ESPN's Todd McShay has Boise State's Curtis Weaver listed behind Young, but not necessarily as a top 10 pick.