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Roundtable: Reviewing the troubling state of the Atlanta Falcons

After two of the most horrific performances in recent Falcons’ history, it’s time to assess what has gone wrong and what the future holds.

New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When a team plays on Thursday night, it’s normally a good time to reset and evaluate where the team stands during an extended break. Nobody could have anticipated the Falcons would be in disarray, especially after incredibly beating the Saints 17 days ago.

They went from beating their biggest rival in a hostile environment to not scoring a touchdown in the next two games. While the Cowboys and Patriots are among the best

teams in the league, there’s no defense for how abysmal the Falcons have played recently. It’s time to examine what has truly gone wrong and what potential changes can be made to salvage what seemed to be a pretty entertaining season. My colleagues Aaron Freeman and William McFadden joined me for this roundtable discussion.

1. Out of everything that can be critiqued, what has been the biggest disappointment from the recent two heavy defeats?

Will McFadden: It’s easily the offense and pretty much every part of that unit, but I’ll drill deeper and say the third- and fourth-down production. Atlanta is 3-22 on third down and 1-4 on fourth down in its last two games, and I believe those stats are directly responsible for the Falcons scoring just a combined three points the last two games.

Arthur Smith helped Tennessee finish fifth in third-down percentage in 2020, but these are two very different teams, so it’s not necessarily a fair comparison. Instead, I’ll just say that it’s disappointing he hasn’t been more creative in these conversion opportunities. Yes, the Falcons are severely limited offensively, but even this group should be better than this.

Aaron Freeman: The lack of production from the Falcons offense, which from my film study centers on uninspired play-calling and execution failures whenever the team makes the right call. Expecting the Falcons to beat either the Cowboys or Patriots was naive, but there’s no excuse for not being at least quasi-competitive through parts of both games.

Allen Strk: How the offense has looked incapable of moving the ball in the air has been alarming. For all their limitations at the wide receiver position, this is still a league where passing the ball is easier than ever. Manufacturing yards shouldn’t be difficult with the right game plan and play-calling. There are moments where Russell Gage, Olamide Zaccheaus, and Tajae Sharpe should have made plays you’d expect from a professional wide receiver. Zaccheaus and Sharpe have failed to catch the ball in narrow windows despite Ryan’s best efforts to throw a pinpoint ball to them.

The personnel has certainly played a sizable factor behind the offense’s inability to pass the ball. The play-calling hasn’t been good enough to put these players in greater positions to succeed. If you can’t throw the ball effectively, you are going to have a difficult time winning games in the NFL. That’s where the Falcons stand right now between underwhelming play-calling and wide receivers that can’t make consistent plays.

2. While he certainly won’t be on the hot seat, do you think the pressure is rightfully on Arthur Smith as a play-caller after his offense scored three points in two games?

Will McFadden: I don’t, actually. This is just me, but I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to coaches and scrutinize players a bit more harshly. This isn’t a pure 1:1 comparison, but I think of coaches as a crew chief for a racing team. They advise on the management of the race - when to pit, when to push it and when to bide time - but it’s the driver who has his hands on the wheel.

I’ve never sympathized more with someone than seeing the look on Arthur Smith’s face after an illegal formation penalty during Atlanta’s first drive against New England. These players still shoot this team in the foot with penalties and miscues. The offense hasn’t been what I expected, but I also thought we’d be seeing Calvin Ridley out there and a more productive Mike Davis. A coach can call the same play with vastly different outcomes based on the players executing that call, and Atlanta’s players haven’t executed. I’m willing to give Smith more time.

Aaron Freeman: Absolutely. Arthur Smith engineered one of the league’s best offenses the past two seasons with the Tennessee Titans. Expectations were high that success would continue here in Atlanta. Until the Falcons show a lot more consistency on the offense, I suspect the whispers that Smith owes a large part of his past success to the presence of Derrick Henry will only grow louder.

Allen Strk: The pressure is on for the offense to score 20 points or more. It’s well-documented that the Falcons have one of the most flawed rosters in the league. This isn’t a team ready to win nine games. For them to be only one game away from the seventh seed is a testament to how well the best players on the rosters have played. Smith needs to show more as a play-caller. Rich Hribar posted a troubling stat of how much the Falcons like to run the ball on first down.

As much as running the ball is part of Smith’s philosophy, it gets to the point where you have to understand your personnel and the current situation of specific games. It was perplexing how Smith kept calling runs on first and ten against New England. Without multidimensional star playmaker Cordarrelle Patterson, the decision to constantly run the ball on first down was damaging. It left the offense hamstrung against a well-prepared defense that eats up predictable opponents. Smith needs to mix things up on early downs going forward. He’s too accomplished as a play-caller to be so predictable and stagnant.

3. The offensive line is made of homegrown top 80 picks, including three first-rounders. Which offensive lineman do you think should be replaced in order to improve the offensive line?

William McFadden: This may be unpopular, but I’m going to say no one. Patience and continuity are qualities the best organizations have in the NFL, and at no spot on the roster is continuity among multiple players more important than the offensive line. The Falcons have taken their lumps up front, sure, but they’ve started the same five each game. Why waste that experience and start again with a new combination next season?

That’s not to say they shouldn’t draft at the position if they feel they need a change in the skillset they currently have there, but I’m not one to hastily move on from something that does take a bit of patience. Based on Smith’s comments about the line so far this year, I think he agrees.

Aaron Freeman: If we’re talking about the running game, the Falcons need to get a lot more out of four of their five starters, with right guard Chris Lindstrom being the lone exception. As far as pass protection goes, rookie left guard Jalen Mayfield has consistently been the team’s biggest liability.

With a pocket quarterback like Matt Ryan, strengthening the interior of the line should be the priority. That not only gives him a clean pocket to step up into to avoid inevitable pressure from Kaleb McGary’s side, but also the room to step into vertical throws as we spend the next few seasons pondering when Ryan’s arm will become an issue much as we saw with Drew Brees at the end of his career.

Allen Strk: Chris Lindstrom and Matt Hennessey have solidified themselves as long-term starters. As badly as Hennessey played against New England, he’s put together a solid body of work at his most natural position. There are reasons to question the other three starters. Jake Matthews is turning 30 years old next season. With his contract and run blocking woes, Smith may consider pursuing a long-term replacement. McGary’s frequent blunders have become tiresome. A right tackle with short arms and slow feet is normally going to struggle against long, explosive edge rushers. The league is starting to be filled with those types of players.

While McGary has shown improvement, those shortcomings in pass protection may force him to shift inside and play guard to maximize his potential. Although both players’ futures will be pondered, Matthews or McGary shouldn’t be instantly replaced. Mayfield is the only player that justifies being replaced. His blunders in pass protection have been detrimental to the offense. If the Falcons are looking to bolster their offensive line, left guard must be the first position the front office assesses in giving Mayfield suitable competition in an open training camp battle or immediately replace him.

4. The defensive line and safety positions could see some personnel changes within the next few weeks. Would you like to see any personnel moves be made involving either unit?

William McFadden: I don’t think Richie Grant is ready for a full-time role, and I’ve been happy with the safety play for the most part outside of a handful of Erik Harris plays, so I’m going to say the defensive line. Anthony Rush started his first game at nose tackle against the Patriots and fared pretty well, so I think the defense is already in the process of tinkering around with that unit.

The Falcons didn’t have the in-house personnel for a 3-4 front when Smith took the job, but they’ve slowly added pieces that fit that billing. I expect the defensive line to be one of the biggest priorities this offseason, and I think that evaluation for the future has already begun.

Aaron Freeman: I’d like to see rookie safety Grant get more opportunities on defense, but for now, he can add more value to the team as a nickel cornerback rather than at safety, where I think Harris, Jaylinn Hawkins, and Duron Harmon are a serviceable trio for the time being. Upfront, give me more beef in the forms of Mike Pennel and Rush.

Allen Strk: Grant’s lack of concentration and poor positioning on plays justify him not playing a more prominent role. As uninspiring as Harris and Harmon are, they aren’t making inexcusable mistakes. The changes will likely take place on the defensive line, with Rush showing flashes in recent weeks. Jonathan Bullard also made some impressive plays against New England. With Tyeler Davison not taking on blockers as effectively as he once did and Marlon Davidson failing to make much of a difference, the interior line could use some much-needed rearrangement within the rotation.

5. Which young player would you like to see more from going forward?

William McFadden: Kyle Pitts. Thursday night, I believe, was an eye-opening experience for the talented rookie. The Patriots did everything they could to take away Julio Jones in the Super Bowl, and he still made huge plays to help his team. That’s the bar for Pitts. He’s not there yet, but I hope Thursday helps in his development. I won’t be watching a young player more over the final stretch of the season more than Pitts. Atlanta’s floor is still incredibly low, but Pitts may determine where its ceiling is in future seasons.

Aaron Freeman: Grant is the pick. Fellow rookies Avery Williams and Darren Hall have been uninspiring as nickel corners in their limited opportunities replacing injured starter Isaiah Oliver. While Grant has also looked miscast in that role, he’s certainly the most talented of the group, and every rep he gets today may pay off for the team down the road if/when he eventually makes the transition back to safety.

Allen Strk: Qadree Ollison was the lone bright spot in last Thursday night’s debacle. His vision, decisiveness, and burst left everyone wondering why hasn’t he been involved in the offense all season. It’s not as if Mike Davis or Wayne Gallman have added much to the offense.

The team desperately needs some sort of edge right now. Ollison was running with a real mean streak by taking on all tacklers and finishing runs with authority. Even when Patterson returns, Ollison should be utilized in a change-of-pace role. He is capable of providing a spark, which is one of many things the offense is in dire need of.