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One reason to worry, one reason to feel confident for the Falcons offense the rest of the way

We think the defense will continue to improve slowly but surely, but we worry about Dirk Koetter.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Feel confident that the defense will make small strides

Here I am, just a day after saying the Falcons seemed to be making strides but it was tough to be sure, arguing that we should be confident they will improve. What gives?

It’s mostly just trend lines and health. The Falcons are going to get clobbered a bit by the likes of Tampa Bay and Kansas City, but the improvement over the past three games has not been illusory. They’ve held Detroit, Carolina, and Minnesota under their points per game averages, something they only did once in the first five games (Green Bay, averaging 32.8 this year). A combination of personnel tweaks like getting an improving Allen Bailey into the lineup more and moving Isaiah Oliver into the slot, along with players like Keanu Neal rounding back into form, has helped this team make some modest but evident progress against non-elite offenses. The question is simply whether they can translate that into tangible improvement against better offenses, and I am optimistic about that.

The reasons are multi-faceted. The first is health, with Marlon Davidson likely to at least make a small impact in the second half once he’s back, John Cominsky set to return from a reserve/COVID-19 list stint, Darqueze Dennard on his way back soon, and the possibility of a healthy Takk McKinley helping out if the Falcons don’t move him. The second is that the coaches have begun to make tangible adjustments, including blitzing far more often (and productiveLY) against Carolina and electing to tighten up coverage a bit to give the pass rush more time to get home. There have been plenty of coverage busts and frustrations here and there will continue to be, but the Falcons haven’t been blown off the field all game the way they were early on this year.

The Falcons offense isn’t going to be elite the rest of the way, and it’s unlikely to even quality as good in most games. Given that the next regime has to build a bit on the foundation that exists here, improvement of any kind would still be a welcome sight for the remaining eight games.

Worry about Dirk Koetter’s worst habits

The Falcon have a good offense filled with capable players. They have an offensive coordinator who is capable of pulling together truly impressive stretches of play calling, as well, and is generally a capable mind between the 20s. The biggest limiting factor on this offense is still Dirk Koetter.

You saw plenty of that on Thursday night. You saw a Todd Gurley 2 yard run on 1st and 10 and a Todd Gurley 2 yard run on 2nd and 10 with the Falcons on the Carolina 27, followed by a Todd Gurley 1 yard run on 2nd and 10 from the Carolina 18, followed by a pass that fell short of the necessary 7 yard and a short field goal for Younghoe Koo. Later, you aw a 3rd and 14 where Koetter evidently decided that Gurley bouncing outside on a play where you’re trying to waste clock made sense, and then Gurley stepped out to stop the clock. You saw third downs end with a whimper when everyone ran to the first down marker or short of it, dooming plays before they started.

This is the Koetter experience in a nutshell: Stretches of real competence, particularly in the passing game, followed by a tendency to think about problems in increasingly antiquated ways. This offense should be spreading things out when they get closer to the goal line, not bunching up and running into the teeth of the defense, and there are far too many squandered early downs that set the Falcons up to fail on third down and close to the end zone. An offenes with this many playmakers and a legitimately improved offensive line should not have the second-highest number of field goals attempts in the NFL.

I worry this won’t get better because Koetter has been basically the same guy his entire career, a competent but unexciting offensive coordinator with a consistent set of problems he can’t seem to overcome. That could hold back this team even if they continue to make gains defensively.