FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Atlanta Falcons coach Arthur Smith knows people outside of his franchise want to panic. However, he is not.
In his second season, he has a plan for pretty much everything.
Despite three losses in four weeks, the Falcons remain firmly in contention in the NFC South, one game behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While the Bucs have won back-to-back, the upside-down nature of the NFL means Atlanta — at 4-6 with a remaining .426 schedule strength, one of the easiest remaining in the NFL — is still a division contender .
“We’re right in the middle of it, not where we want to be,” Smith said. “But the reality is you’re in the middle of a playoff race with a conference opponent coming in here and a game we have to win.”
During the preseason, the Falcons were voted by many as one of the worst teams in the league. The Falcons being here is a testament to what Smith and his associates were able to accomplish with a roster that started the season with the most dead money in the NFL. Sunday’s opponent Chicago, meanwhile, has passed the Falcons after trading Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith.
While expectations shouldn’t necessarily change because a team performs above average, they do. Which leads to investigating what has gone wrong in the last few weeks and if it can be fixed.
The pass frenzy
While much will be made of the quarterback situation (we’ll get to that), Atlanta’s biggest problem is the one it started the season with: a pass rush that doesn’t quite deliver.
For the second straight season, the Falcons are ranked highest in sacks (13th, 31st place), opposing QB pressure rate (18.4, last place), and percentage of time they are in contact with opposing quarterbacks (14.5 , last place), at the bottom of the NFL ).
Atlanta’s 39.8% pass rush win rate is #22 in the league, so that’s a little better, but still not good.
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“When you’re losing a game, there’s certainly a crucial third or two that you wish you could get him off the mark or get the ball out faster,” Smith said. “Sometimes on Thursday evenings [against the Panthers]just take that game and we had chances for third place and we didn’t come up with the interceptions and things that we forced some throws into.
The Falcons were opportunistic in the first five weeks of the season as they reached quarterback, with the pressure leading to game-winning interceptions against Seattle and Cleveland and the sack-that-wasn’t against Tampa Bay. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who leads Atlanta with 4.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits, was particularly effective.
Remodeled in the off-season, the edge-rusher group hasn’t consistently delivered. Rookie second-round pick Arnold Ebiketie, who has shown promise, leads the Falcons with a 6.2 pressure percentage that ranks 90th in the NFL among qualified defensemen. Atlanta’s third-round pick DeAngelo Malone is under pressure 11.1% of the time but has only participated in 45 pass rushes.
The solution may not come this year. Ebiketie, who has nine quarterback hits and 1.5 sacks, and Malone have shown potential. If they improve, that could be the pass rush too. Lorenzo Carter, signed in the offseason, has 2.5 sacks, second with the Falcons. He showed last season he can get hot in the second half with five sacks in the last four games.
Atlanta could blitz more from the secondary side, and cornerback AJ Terrell’s return should provide better coverage, which could allow defensive coordinator Dean Pees to do more.
The Quarterback/Pass Protection
That’s been a big question last week after quarterback Marcus Mariota’s two tough games, but don’t expect a move to Desmond Ridder anytime soon. There are things Mariota does well (how he handles the pre-snap, running the ball) and things that were difficult – downfield passing where he takes 16.9% of his chances but only 25% of the Complete passes of 20 air yards or more.
Mariota has made mistakes — both he and Smith acknowledged there were times when he tried to do too much against the Panthers — but it goes beyond Mariota.
“You see a couple of plays where you can certainly blame him,” Smith said. “But there’s also a lot of blame.”
Some of these were low snaps — Smith specifically mentioned this Monday. Teams also blitzed Mariota on 33.1% of his dropbacks, and Atlanta allowed pressure 34.9% of the time, ahead of only Tennessee, the Giants and Chicago.
To understand what Mariota brings, consider what Smith is looking for in his quarterback.
“Operating would be number 1, things that we ask of them on the line of scrimmage, you can handle situational football, third down, two minutes, all those things,” Smith said. “Obviously if you were a team that had fallen behind 50 times you would make sure there are some other qualities that you would probably focus more on, but where we are as a program and as a team, people that keep us efficient and be consistent and that’s what we’re looking for every week.”
On offense as a whole, Mariota has largely done that. Atlanta is No. 10 in offensive efficiency (54.94) according to ESPN Stats & Information and was No. 8 prior to Thursday night’s loss. The Falcons are eighth in third-down percentage (43.2) and red- Zone touchdown percentage (61.3). Due to the situation, Mariota managed the offensive well.
Whether Mariota is the long-term answer is another question. For what the Falcons are trying to do in the middle of a playoff race, Mariota has hung around, led well and posed a threat with his legs. He is fifth in yards per rush (5.51) among qualified quarterbacks and seventh in rushing yards (347).
At some point, it’s conceivable that the Falcons will turn to Ridder, their third-round pick this year, but it’s a trickier move while the team is realistically still in a playoff race.
The Kyle Pitts connection
Of all the criticisms of Mariota, the biggest bone of contention might be his lack of chemistry with sophomore Kyle Pitts.
While Pitts’ goals are close to last year’s — he has 53 in nine games this year and 110 in 17 games in 2021 — he’s off the pace at receptions and yards while running about nine fewer stretches per game. In a different offensive scheme, he has had a higher goal percentage this year (29.8 vs. 22.7) but only catches 47.2% of his goals vs. 61.8% last season. Keep in mind that as a full-fledged tight end, Pitts is being called upon to do more this year.
One of the issues, Smith said, is route timing between Pitts and Mariota.
“I’d be disheartened if it was one thing where a man wouldn’t necessarily be productive if he was in the zone, not just in the zone, but I don’t think that was necessarily the case,” Smith said. “There are many things, sometimes it was a comedy of mistakes, the timing was sped up, maybe it’s the pressure, maybe the ball comes out quickly, you don’t get into a clean pocket, or we missed.”
When Mariota targeted Pitts, it was on deep shots (20 or more air yards) 28.3% of the time. Mariota was blitzed 39.6% of the dropbacks where he aimed at Pitts, pressured 28.3% of the time, and missed 26.4% of the target.
Mariota has said multiple times that he needs to give Pitts more options. The goals were there, even if the production has not come yet. Pitts has been targeted seven or more times each week for the past three games.
Pitts has only had two games with more than three catches and 30 yards this season – wins over Seattle (five receptions, 87 yards) and Carolina (5-80). But if Mariota keeps throwing at him, it’s reasonable to think it will eventually turn.
Third Down Defense
Pees defended his team’s third game last week ahead of Thursday night’s game against the Panthers. But the truth is the hawks fought. There were explosive games for a few weeks. For others, it was first- and second-down issues that resulted in short third-down conversions. But the Falcons are No. 29 in the NFL in third-down defense (46.6%), ahead of only Las Vegas, Chicago and Detroit.
“We have to do better in third place,” Pees said before losing to Carolina. “The simple answer is we need to play better coverage or come to them under pressure.”
The biggest thing was consistency. Atlanta was much better at home (39.1%) than on the road (53.6%) on third downs. The second quarter (62.2%) was the biggest problem, the only quarter above 44%. The size of a problem depends on the week. The Falcons have fluctuated between 40% or better and 50% or worse each week since week 3.
So if the Falcons find an improvement in third place, it could solve many of their defensive problems. It’s no coincidence that Atlanta’s three best days of defense in the third loss came in three of the team’s four wins.