The Atlanta Falcons got off to a very rough start this season. Atlanta’s offense and defense struggled mightily over the first three weeks, going 1-2 and getting outscored by a combined margin of 94-48. Hope was in short supply, and the team generally looked unprepared for the start of the season. Even in the lone win against the Giants, the Falcons didn’t necessarily look like the better team for much of the game.
Things changed over the next three games, particularly on offense. Atlanta lost narrowly to Washington in a game where they were clearly the better team throughout, then followed up that performance with two wins over admittedly poor teams. While the defense has continued to play poorly, the offense has steadily improved. After averaging just 16 points over their first three games, the Falcons have rebounded and are averaging 29 points over their last three.
While Atlanta is still right around league average in most overall offensive statistics, there are several very encouraging signs about the direction of the offense. For starters, the team has been close to elite on third down, converting 45.9% of their attempts (6th). The Falcons are also at an above-average 61.9% conversion rate in the red zone (14th), which is notably higher than any season of Dirk Koetter’s tenure (Koetter’s best RZ performance was in 2014, with a 61.4% conversion rate).
While the offense has been far from perfect, Atlanta has managed to put up these numbers despite missing some key players. Starting right tackle Kaleb McGary was out of the lineup against Miami. Top receivers Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage have each missed time. The Falcons have managed to weather the storm, thanks to the emergence of two key players: rookie tight end Kyle Pitts and running back Cordarrelle Patterson.
Pitts has been magnificent, setting rookie records for tight ends and almost single-handedly getting the Falcons into game-winning position at the end of Sunday’s game. He’s already demanding WR1 treatment from opposing defenses, and it hasn’t been enough to stop him. Miami even started dedicating All-Pro cornerback Xavien Howard to Pitts late in the game—it didn’t work. Through 6 games, Pitts is Atlanta’s leading receiver with 31 catches for 471 yards (at 15.2 YPR!) and 1 TD.
Meanwhile, Cordarrelle Patterson has clearly taken the RB1 mantle from Mike Davis after an absolutely electric start to the season. It seems like whenever the Falcons need a big play, Patterson is ready to deliver. Whether on the ground as a true running back, out of the backfield as a pass catcher, or even lined up at wide receiver, Patterson has been making a massive difference. Patterson is the Falcons’ leading rusher with 233 yards on 55 carries (at a respectable 4.2 YPC), and he’s second on the team in receiving with 27 catches for 296 yards (11.0 YPR). Incredibly, Patterson also leads the team in TDs with 6—2 rushing, 4 receiving.
We’re finally starting to see some of the hallmarks of Arthur Smith’s scheme take shape, as well as his stated commitment to targeting favorable matchups and moving players around the formation. Both Kyle Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson are perfect examples of this, as each has played a versatile role. Even the offensive line, which was a massive liability over the first few weeks of the season, has stabilized. The run blocking has continued to be hit-or-miss, but the pass protection has been very good: Atlanta is currently 4th in sack percentage allowed with just a 3.5% sack rate.
The scariest part of this equation is that the Falcons have thus far failed to play a complete game on offense. Even their best performances have been marred with drops, abysmal turnovers, and unlucky interceptions. Calvin Ridley has gotten off to a slow start in the new scheme, with just 281 yards on 31 catches at a career-low 9.1 YPR. That’s over a 6 yard drop-off from the 15.3 YPR he posted in 2020.
Atlanta’s offense is clearly good, but to take the next step—to become one of the premier offenses in the NFL—they’ll have to clean up the mistakes and find a way to get Calvin Ridley more involved. I think both of these are possible to achieve. Cleaning up mistakes is something that should come with more comfort and familiarity in the scheme. Ryan has, overall, done a great job at protecting the football—he just needs his receivers to come down with it more frequently.
Ridley’s role in the offense early in the season was, largely by necessity, as a short-to-intermediate safety valve for Ryan. That role is no longer necessary with the emergence of Kyle Pitts, Russell Gage’s return, a solid possession receiver in Tajae Sharpe, and a capable tight end target in Hayden Hurst. Perhaps now, the Falcons can move Ridley into more of a “Z” role as a deep threat and intermediate target. Contested catch situations and catching balls in traffic have never really been Ridley’s strong suit, anyhow.
I still think we’re only going to get a taste of how good this offense can be in 2021. There are more personnel moves to make before this unit can truly rise to the elite level that Arthur Smith is hoping for. But there’s no reason to think that the Falcons can’t get this offense to a top-10 level by season’s end—and if this team hopes to compete at all for a Wild Card berth, they’ll need it.