The Atlanta Falcons offense has certainly hit a rough patch over the past two weeks, generating just three combined points in their last two losses against the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots.
That has prompted a lot of discussion and debate over whether the team’s struggles stem from a dearth of talent on that side of the ball or underwhelming play-calling by head coach Arthur Smith.
Both can be and likely are true, but until the Derrick Henry clone finishes developing in Smith’s secret underground laboratory beneath FedEx headquarters in Memphis and/or the talent gets a needed booster shot from the return of wide receiver Calvin Ridley in the near future, it’s unlikely the team can do much to upgrade their roster before next March’s offseason begins.
Instead in the mean time, the team will have to rely on improvements and adjustments made by Smith, and I have four suggestions for him.
“Establishing the pass”
Firstly, one can argue that the Smith-led Falcons offensive attack is too conservative for its own good. The team has relied too heavily on the “establish the run” trope that was a staple of Smith’s offenses in Tennessee, spearheaded by the Henry clone’s original genetic precursor.
This is evidenced by how often the Falcons run the ball on first downs to little success. The team has run the ball on 55 percent of their first downs in 2021, which currently ranks as the eighth-highest run rate in the NFL.
Even when accounting for situation by only looking at first downs in which the score margin is within eight points, the Falcons run the ball on 58 percent of the time, ranking seventh well above the league average of 52 percent. Yet the team finds little success in those situations.
According to Sharp Football Stats, the Falcons rank dead last in the NFL in terms of rushing success rate (35 percent) on first downs. Compare that to their first-down passing success rate of 55 percent, which ranks 14th best in the NFL thus far.
Essentially the Falcons could benefit from throwing more on early downs and running less, which should better keep this offense on schedule.
Left side, wrong side
Another adjustment the team could make when they do inevitably run the football is by running less to the left side of the offensive line. Per Football Outsiders metrics heading into this past week’s game, the Falcons run the ball behind their left tackle with the fourth-highest frequency, yet are dead last in adjusted line yards, that website’s advanced metric to measure the quality of run blocking by an offensive line. When running left end (i.e outside the left tackle), they rank 25th in adjusted line yards. Also, no team has been stuffed for negative yardage or no gain on runs to the left side more than the Falcons. That contrasts with the team’s success running to the right side of the formation.
They rank fifth-best when running right end and 11th best when running behind the right tackle. They already run it the most behind their right tackle of any team in the league according to Football Outsiders, but perhaps they need to continue to up the frequency.
Essentially, the Falcons are limiting their offense by not only being so staunchly committed to “establishing the run” on first downs, and only continuing to do more damage by running to the left versus the right side of the line.
Lights, cameras, play action
Another frequent criticism directed less at Smith and more at the Falcons' current personnel is the lack of quality pass-catchers, especially at the wide receiver position. Losing Julio Jones before the season and Ridley during the season have certainly been devastating blows, exposing that the Falcons without a doubt have one of the weaker wide receiver corps in the NFL.
Then losing combo running back/wideout Cordarrelle Patterson before last week’s loss to the Patriots only compounded the issue, since he’s been their most reliable pass-catcher after rookie tight end Kyle Pitts thus far this season.
In my last article suggesting that Pitts was in for a big day against the Cowboys in Week 10, which has aged poorly, I discussed the link between the Falcons dialing up explosive plays and scoring points. Overwhelmingly, the Falcons tend to generate successful scoring drives on possessions that include gains of 20 yards or more. I noted that before their two most recent offensive struggles, the Falcons' two worst offensive outputs of the season against the Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers did not feature the team generating a single explosive play of 20 yards or more.
And if you needed an update on whether that trend has continued in their two most recent losses, rest assured it has. The Falcons’ lone explosive play of the past two weeks came in the third quarter against Dallas on a check down to Wayne Gallman on a drive that resulted in the first of two Matt Ryan interceptions.
Yet notably, that play began with a play-action fake to Gallman, with such misdirection plays being critical for the Falcons to generate explosive plays from players other than Pitts, Patterson, and Ridley.
Most agree that trio comprises the bulk of the team’s talented pass-catchers and also accounts for 21 of the team’s 26 explosive plays this year. Of the remaining five to Russell Gage (two), Lee Smith, Olamide Zaccheaus, and Gallman, four of them featured some form of play-action.
That tells us if the Falcons are going to find ways to generate explosive plays moving forward, especially in instances where Pitts, Patterson, or Ridley may be absent or marginalized, it will likely come via play-action passes designed to go elsewhere.
Ryan already ranks 10th in the NFL in terms of starting quarterbacks utilizing play-action, accounting for 29 percent of all of his dropbacks this year according to Pro Football Focus. PFF also grades him as the fifth-best passer on such plays, which once again proves that teams don’t need to have success running the ball in order to dial up play action. But that fact coupled with the potential benefits for their “back-end” receivers, means there’s every incentive for the Falcons to increase their usage of play-action for the remainder of the season, even if it’s only by a relatively small degree.
Yet even Pitts and Patterson have benefited greatly from the misdirection that play-action creates. Half of their combined 18 explosive plays featured play-action fakes, with the rest being primarily “go” balls or fades featuring either receiver one-on-one with an outside corner down the sideline going up to make a play. We saw Pitts do this several times in the Falcons’ win over the Miami Dolphins five weeks ago, as well as Patterson doing it on two keys plays in the team’s win against the rival New Orleans Saints in Week 9.
The fact that those two receivers are the only ones making such vertical plays likely contributes to the perception that the team lacks talent elsewhere at the wide receiver position. With the possible exception of newly added deep threat Marvin Hall, the rest of the receiver room (including Ridley) aren’t the types that you can expect to run by cornerbacks and win over the top like Pitts and Patterson have done on a semi-regular basis this season.
A “funner bunch” of receivers
This brings us to the final adjustment that Smith can make to improve the team’s passing attack: increasing the usage of bunch formations to help create more opportunities for the team’s “lesser” receivers.
The Falcons have already made use of bunch formations and 3x1 sets this year. A recent example stems from the first quarter of the Cowboys game, where a third-and-seven pass to Pitts was broken up by Cowboys cornerback Jourdan Lewis, leading to the team’s failed fourth-down conversion attempt a play later.
That third-down play featured wide receivers Russell Gage and Tajae Sharpe, along with tight end Hayden Hurst bunched to one side of the formation with Pitts singled upon on the opposite side.
Matt Ryan wound up locking onto Pitts and Lewis made a great defensive play, but notably on that play, Gage was able to break open from Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs on a pivot route thanks in part to the confusion and clutter created by the bunch formation.
Obviously, it didn’t work out for the Falcons on that particular play, but it remains a useful method to help out the team’s “lesser” receivers since they’re less likely to simply line up and win in the ways we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Pitts and Patterson this season.
None of these adjustments and changes should require Smith to completely re-work the Falcon offense, as just merely tweaking it slightly to see if the team can become more consistent on that side of the ball could pay off.
Such changes should buy them time until the Derrick Henry clone is fully incubated and eventually comes crashing through the door to save the offense, and subsequently the Falcons’ season.
Until that day arrives, do you agree these adjustments would benefit Smith and the Falcons' offense? Are there others you’d like to see happen?