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Atlanta’s versatile offense wants to be a defensive coordinator’s nightmare

The Falcons are missing some key pieces, so they’re getting creative to fill the void. It’s working.

New York Jets v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

The best performance of Arthur Smith’s young career as a head coach came against the Jets. Down Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage, the Falcons knew they’d have to get creative to put up points against New York, and they did.

That creativity is a credit to the play calling, certainly, but it’s also a major credit to the personnel and the way the team has elected to use its players. It’s about lining up Kyle Pitts in a way to create havoc and using Cordarrelle Patterson as the kind of all-purpose weapon that defensive coordinators hate dealing with. It’s about varying formations and looks in a way that makes it more difficult to prepare for the Falcons than it would be if they just lined up Ridley and Gage at receiver, put Kyle Pitts on the field as an inline tight end, and had Mike Davis behind Matt Ryan on every snap, and it’s a critically important piece of the puzzle for an offense that is still a work in progress.

Josh Kendall at The Athletic had a nice writeup today about this very topic, one where Dean Pees describes how difficult it can be to defend players like Patterson and Pitts when you’re not certain what position they’re even supposed to be playing on a given play. Arthur Smith makes it clear that sowing confusion and chaos is just part of what he’s looking to do, though on the Falcons’ end the planning is more elegant than that.

The former Tennessee offensive coordinator, who is in his first year as Atlanta’s head coach, already has used multiple chess references in describing his offensive approach.

“That’s kind of how my mind works,” he said.

In the analogy, Pitts, Patterson and Hurst are queens, pieces that can move any direction from anywhere on the board.

“It’s a big reason those guys are here,” Smith said. “You can move them around. We value that versatility, so hopefully they can continue to grow, and they can help us move the football and score touchdowns.”

The numbers back up the approach as Atlanta experiments with what does and does not work, and it’s encouraging that the offense has made such significant strides in a short time. Matt Ryan’s comfort level with the offense and the way Patterson and Pitts have been successful even without the threat of Ridley in particular on the field suggests we’re not even close to seeing how good this team can be on that side of the ball, which is encouraging after an absolutely brutal start to the year.

Through the first five games of the season, Atlanta was the most formationally diverse team in the NFL. The Falcons were the only team to run more than 50 plays out of four different personnel groupings — 96 plays out of 12 personnel, 94 out of 11, 59 out of 21 and 51 out of 22. (Personnel groupings are identified by using the number of running backs on the field as the first number and the number of tight ends on the field as the second number, so 12 personnel includes one running back and two tight ends.)

Go give the whole writeup a read because there’s a lot of worthwhile information and many great quotes in there, but suffice to say you won’t see Smith and company backing away from catering the offense to the strengths of their most versatile players. If the Jets game is any indication of what’s ahead, we’re going to have fun watching this offense.