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Slow, steady improvement crucial for Falcons

The Falcons finally looked like the better team for a whole game in Week 5’s victory over the Jets. Continuing the slow, steady improvement that we’ve seen over the first five games will be absolutely crucial to Atlanta’s success in 2021 and beyond.

New York Jets v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Late in the game against the New York Jets, the Atlanta Falcons found themselves in familiar territory. They faced the same situation last week against the Washington Football Team: a narrow, 2-3 point lead and a small amount of time left in the game. In Week 4, the Falcons opted for the conservative route—two runs and a screen to burn clock. But Atlanta failed to generate a first down, and wound up giving up a TD drive to Washington that cost them the game.

In Week 5, facing a similar situation, the Falcons instead opted for an aggressive approach. It paid off: the Falcons immediately hit a 39-yard pass play to Kyle Pitts, and all but secured the win with a 9-play drive that ate up almost 5 minutes of clock. The Jets failed to secure the miraculous FG + onside kick + TD that would’ve been necessary to tie the game, and Atlanta was able to run out the clock in the victory formation.

These late game, one-score situations were traditionally awful for the Falcons under Dan Quinn. In 2020, the team seemed to find new and exciting ways to blow leads every single week. Through five games of Arthur Smith, we’ve seen three one-score situations: a late FG to win against the Giants, a blown lead against Washington, and a win in the victory formation against the Jets. That’s a 2-1 record in one-score games for Atlanta thus far, a win total which already matches the horrific 2-8 record the team compiled in 2020.

More than the fact that the Falcons won against the lowly New York Jets, though, was how they did it. Arthur Smith owned his mistakes in Week 4, made adjustments, and tried a new approach. That is incredibly refreshing after seeing this team make the same mistakes week-after-week and year-after-year under Dan Quinn. The same soft zone and prevent defense along with the constant blown leads and conservative playcalling at the end of games. We’ll see if Smith will stick to his aggressive Week 5 gameplan going forward, but seeing that growth—and the willingness to try a new strategy—was an important step.

The end-of-game playcalling wasn’t the only improvement in Week 5: Atlanta’s offense as a whole had their best, most consistent game of the season. Matt Ryan threw for 342 yards and 2 TDs with both Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage sidelined. Kyle Pitts finally had his breakout performance, looking like a true #1 receiving option with 9 catches for 119 yards and his first-ever TD. The run game was solid, if unspectacular, with over 100 yards on the day spread between Cordarrelle Patterson and Mike Davis.

If not for a very unlucky fumble by Davis and a just-plain-bad fumble by Hayden Hurst—both at the edge of the red zone—this team would’ve probably dropped 35+ points on a borderline top-10 Jets defense. Those sort of numbers would have been unthinkable just two weeks ago, when Atlanta was struggling to put up even 20 points against the likes of the Eagles and Giants.

The week-to-week improvement has been a major factor for Atlanta, who started out the year as the worst scoring offense in the league. Four weeks later, the Falcons are now 22nd with 21.0 points per game. Perhaps most impressive are the teams conversion rates on 3rd down and in the red zone—the latter of which was a constant problem under Dirk Koetter. Atlanta is currently converting 45.8% of third downs (7th) and 68.8% of red zone opportunities (T-8th). Both of these numbers include the abysmal Week 1 outing, where Atlanta was 3-14 (21.4%) on third down and 0-2 (0%) in the red zone.

While the defense has been far from good, they’ve managed to hold their own despite serious talent deficiencies and an onslaught of injuries in the secondary. Atlanta was down to their third-string slot defender against the Jets, with Isaiah Oliver on IR and Avery Williams out with a hamstring injury. FS Erik Harris, one of the best players in the secondary, also missed the game with a calf injury.

The reserves stepped up in a big way, with second-year safety Jaylinn Hawkins securing a crucial interception and second-round DB Richie Grant putting in a solid performance in the slot. Atlanta’s defense is firmly in the average category in most statistics: 12th in total yardage allowed, 14th in passing yardage allowed, and 13th in rushing yardage allowed. While the scoring defense looks bad—they’re currently 28th with 29.6 PPG allowed—we have to keep in mind that 21 of those points are from pick-sixes and a kick return TD. If you remove those points from the equation, the Falcons would be 23rd in scoring defense.

Atlanta has clearly gone from “dregs of the league” in Weeks 1 and 2 to “competitive” in Weeks 3-5. The question is, can they keep it up over the remainder of the season? Can they continue this slow, steady improvement over 17 games? If so, we could be looking at this team in an entirely different light heading into 2022. The NFC Wild Card race is also looking surprisingly wide-open after five weeks, with nine teams in the 2-3/3-2 range and just five with four or more wins.

Do I believe the Falcons are a legitimate Wild Card contender? No—not yet. We’ve only seen five games of Arthur Smith, and two were blowouts—the other three were all one-score nail-biters. However, it’s very encouraging to see consistent improvement every single week, and nothing I’ve seen so far is making me budge off my preseason prediction of a 9-8 finish. And with the current state of the conference, hovering around .500 likely leaves Atlanta “in the hunt” for most of the season.

Despite what Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot said about competing right now, 2021 is very much a “building” year. This roster is still very much under construction, and it’ll take a multiple seasons to dig out of the salary cap mess that Thomas Dimitroff left. If Smith can squeeze close to a .500 record out of this makeshift roster, I think that’s deserving of some praise. Making these small, incremental improvements each week will be the key to reaching that goal.