I was going to kick off your Wednesday morning with a spirited article about the defining moment of the Falcons-Dolphins series, but then I realized Miami has dominated this series and I probably don’t have two Falcons-Dolphins memories to rub together. Let’s go bigger picture.
The Falcons are a work in progress in almost every way, but the passing game is trending in the right direction and the secondary is in so much flux due to injuries that neither one merits mentioning at the moment for the team’s biggest areas of needed improvements. Instead, let’s focus on three places where even a modest lift would help the Falcons win games the rest of the way.
The pass rush
The following is a deeply made up combo statistic, but it helps to underscore the extent to which the Falcons have not been wreaking havoc against opposing offenses.
Fun team defense stat: Havoc=(tackles for a loss or no gain + forced fumbles + interceptions + pass deflections + pressures)/plays— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) October 8, 2021
Top and bottom-5 defenses in 2021:
I’m not going to let the secondary off the hook here for their lack of big plays and sometimes shaky coverage, but the pass rush is a major culprit here. The team’s 9 sacks are the fourth-fewest for a team in the NFL today, ESPN has their pass rush win rate as the 24th-best in the league, they’re dead last in quarterback hits and Pro Football Reference has them with the fifth-fewest pressures (hurries, knockdowns and sacks in their parlance). However you want to slice and dice the numbers or chop up the on-field performance, you can tell that this pass rush isn’t a consistent force for good just yet, and isn’t likely to become one overnight.
That’s not stunning, but it is something the Falcons can hopefully work to improve in the weeks ahead. An increasing role for Ade Ogundeji, the return of a healthy Marlon Davidson, more playing time for Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and more blitzing from Dean Pees should help move the needle in the right direction. Pees has, to this point, had this defense blitzing at a rate that puts them more toward the middle of the pack. Getting a bit more from Grady Jarrett and even Dante Fowler as pass rushers would also make a difference, and with Jarrett in particular it feels obvious that more productive days are on the way. Continuing to ask Foye Oluokun to rush the passer more often is also a good move, as he’s turned his 21 blitzes into four quarterback hits and a sack.
It would be deeply unrealistic to ask this team to go out and sign a big name or exhibit drastic improvement with their very real personnel limitations. Asking them to not be among the very worst pass rushes in the NFL might also be a stretch for the same cap-and-talent-related reasons, but there is room for improvement nonetheless.
The pass protection has stabilized somewhat in recent weeks, and as Matt Ryan gets more comfortable in the offense and Arthur Smith gets more comfortable calling it, I think we’ll see the Falcons continue to make strides in that arena. Jake Matthews and Chris Lindstrom are terrific and everyone else has been at least decent for long stretches during the past three weeks, so that feels like real progress.
We need to see more from the run blocking. Mike Davis is 27th in attempts in the NFL today but just 51st in yards before contact, with 99 yards before he’s hit on 62 attempts. Cordarrelle Patterson is faring better with 82 yards before contact on 41 attempts, but he and Davis are still 39th and 47th (which is third-to-last for qualifying backs) in Pro Football Reference’s average yards before contact metric. There’s no question some of this is play design, but the Falcons have also just not done a good job of opening running lanes for their backs for more than a microsecond thus far in 2021.
Arthur Smith is not going to abandon the run and we’re well aware that Patterson is a dangerous weapon and Davis is a very capable, physical back, so there are certainly better days ahead for both of these guys and Wayne Gallman. Those better days will only come when the blocking improves enough to give those guys a consistent shot at making something happen without being met by two defenders at the line of scrimmage.
Kick return coverage
The signing of Daren Bates felt very pointed toward this exact issue.
The Falcons’ failures on kickoff returns the past two weeks resulted in a touchdown that swung the game for Washington, who were down 17-13 at the half and took the lead immediately on a 101 yard return touchdown. In a game Atlanta lost by four points, it’s not an exaggeration to say that super easy touchdown probably swung the game.
They tried to do it again playing the Jets, as Tevin Coleman got free and ran for nearly 70 yards before a heroic effort from Darren Hall resulted in Coleman going out of bounds. The Jets still were able to score fairly easily on a short field, making that game closer than it needed to be.
Marquice Williams seems to have intimated in his remarks to the press that missed assignments were at least partially to blame for those two long returns, and the signing of an established and heady special teams tackler like Bates suggests they’re not going to wait around for everyone to get on the same page. Given that neither Younghoe Koo or Dustin Colquitt seem capable of consistently getting touchbacks on kickoffs, this not really an issue they can afford to ignore.
The bottom line is that the Falcons aren’t good enough to lose the field position battle or watch a lead evaporate on a single special teams play and recover from it, especially against better teams. Improving coverage to avoid these kinds of mishaps is a major priority, and getting Bates aboard and presumably flexed to the active roster on Sunday is just one piece of that.
What other areas of improvement are you looking at heading into the final 12 weeks of the season?