The bye week is a time to reflect on how we got here and, more importantly, where we could ultimately end up this season. The Atlanta Falcons got the earliest possible bye week this year and are currently preparing for the grinding 12-week run that will come immediately following it.
The Birds sit at a 2-3 record, having swept the teams who reside in East Rutherford, New Jersey and fallen to the Eagles, Buccaneers and Football Team. It’s not the ideal spot to be in, but it’s much better than where they were five weeks into the campaign each of the past three seasons.
While we do some of that reflection, I wanted to take an opportunity to look at the positives in the form of stuff that’s been trending in the right direction. With the Falcons having a week off, some of those positives could even be expedited a bit.
The offense is beginning to hit its stride
The product we saw on the field from the offense in the Week 1 defeat to Philadelphia was absolutely heinous. The Falcons kicked two field goals on the first two drives of the game and then never even crossed midfield after that. We had hoped that that was the result of the playbook just not being fully implemented and the weirdness that comes with Week 1 sometimes, and the signs are indicating that this was indeed the case.
Following a rough offensive output the first two weeks (there were two pick 6s thrown in Week 2), and through the first three quarters of the Giants game, the offense seems to have found something starting in the fourth quarter of Week 3 and extending through Weeks 4 and 5. They scored 30 points against Washington and another 27 against the Jets after putting together two scoring drives in the fourth quarter against the Giants.
The performance against the Jets was especially impressive, given the fact that the team was missing its two best wide receivers. They scored those 27 points despite two red zone fumbles.
Matt Ryan in particular has looked outstanding as of late — throwing for 868 passing yards and eight touchdowns (along with no interceptions) in the past three weeks, to go along with passer ratings of 111.2, 111.5 and 109.7, respectively. His current passer rating on the season of 97.1 would be the highest mark he’s achieved since the 2018 season, and the third-highest single season mark of his career (behind only 2018 and his MVP 2016 season).
The offense should continue to improve as Arthur Smith continues to implement more of his playbook and players get more comfortable, and the bye week will be a great opportunity to get there.
The offense line has shown some improvement
The major story of Week 1 was the putrid play from the Atlanta offensive line, and in particular rookie Jalen Mayfield, who was thrust into starting left guard duties following an injury to Josh Andrews. While the offensive line continues to be the liability we all feared it would be in the offseason, there has been some improvement.
Chris Lindstrom and Jake Matthews have been the standouts we were expecting them to be, with Matthews owning the highest PFF pass blocking grade on the line (both are in the 70s). Neither has allowed a sack, and each has allowed just five QB hurries and one QB hit. Lindstrom in particular has looked like a bonafide Pro Bowler this season, grading out in the top five among all guards with a minimum of 20% of their team’s snaps played in overall PFF score.
Kaleb McGary, Matt Hennessy and Mayfield all need to make marked improvements in pass protection, but all three were plus run blockers against the Jets with Hennessy looking like the best of the trio overall at this point. With some better pass blocking, he would vault into the level of very solid centers in the NFL — he’s allowed only one sack, but has a team high 11 QB pressures allowed.
Mayfield continues taking his lumps, playing a position that was not where he primarily lined up in college, and having gone through the fire of facing some incredible interior defensive lineman over the first five games. While he’s looked terrible in each defeat, he has been an above average guard in each win, and it’s fair to expect improvement as the season goes along and he continues to get used to the left guard position. If he reverts to being terrible, then Andrews can step into the starting role instead.
Rookies are beginning to make an impact
It took a few weeks of patience, but we all saw Kyle Pitts step into the number one receiving role and absolutely eviscerate the Jets to the tune of nine catches, 119 receiving yards and his first career receiving touchdown. It was the kind of performance the Falcons were envisioning when they decided to make him the highest drafted tight end in NFL history.
It takes some time for any rookie to adjust to the NFL, particularly a rookie tight end, and I personally didn’t think the expectations of a 1,000-yard campaign and double digit touchdowns that some were putting on Pitts for this season were particularly fair — after all, the only rookie tight end in NFL history who achieved the 1,000-yard milestone was Mike Ditka in 1962.
What we saw from Pitts through the first four games was about in line with what we should expect from a good rookie TE, and his breakout in Week 5 showcased the talent that makes him special enough to still possibly have one of the best seasons in NFL history for a rookie at his position.
Kyle Pitts only passed blocked on 2 snaps in Week 5. He played 85% snaps wide or slot. He has been 80%+ the last two weeks.— Fusue Vue (@DevyEusuf) October 11, 2021
His ADOT has been 10.0+ the last three games.
What’s distinctly exciting about Pitts is that the coaching staff seems to have a plan for him. He wasn’t taken fourth overall to be a blocker, and Ryan isn’t throwing to him near the line of scrimmage either — Pitts is being put in a position to take full advantage of his God-given talent. He’s being targeted downfield, trusted in crunch time fourth quarter moments and has received at least one red zone target in each game, including five total over the past two weeks (after getting one in each of the first three games).
Atlanta’s second round pick, Richie Grant, has struggled to see the field for the most part. Following six played snaps in the season opener, Grant didn’t play at all in Weeks 2-4 before injuries to the secondary thrust him into a position to play 50% of the team’s total defensive snaps in Week 5.
Grant held his own and had a solid game when given the chance, particularly in run defense. Though he did give up two receptions on three targets for 29 yards, he broke up a pass and looked worlds better in coverage than he did against the Eagles, when he allowed a 23-yard touchdown reception to Jalen Reagor on one of those six played snaps.
Adetokunbo Ogundeji is the rookie other than Pitts and Mayfield who is receiving a healthy amount of playing time, being used as a part of Atlanta’s defensive line rotation. He played a career high 30 snaps against the Jets.
Ogundeji got his first career sack against the Jets, which is a great moment for the young man. He also had two run stops, which was more than what he had in the first four games combined. The Notre Dame product is currently third on the team in both pressures and QB hurries, behind only Dante Fowler and Grady Jarrett in both categories. The Falcons are receiving a pretty good return on their investment in Ogundeji, whom they spent a fifth round compensatory pick on to draft.