Going into the season, my projection for the Falcons was six wins at best. They have reached that win total with four games remaining. It’s a testament to how well the star players have played, tremendous coaching, and the mental fortitude to close out games on both sides of the ball. For this team to be in the playoff hunt is simply remarkable. It’s been several years since the Falcons entered a big game with playoff implications.
That will be occurring this Sunday in San Francisco. As my colleague Kevin Knight wrote about earlier this week, this game will play a major role in determining the Falcons’ playoff fate. That said, they do have three other games following Sunday’s clash with the 49ers. There are two playoff spots left for them to take. Here are five of the biggest things they must do to take what they want and be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2017-2018.
The continuous growth of the ground game
For the first time since 2018, the Falcons have gained over 100 rushing yards in three consecutive games. It’s no coincidence they are in 2-1 during that stretch. Given the limitations within the passing game, Cordarrelle Patterson and Mike Davis must be at the forefront of their game plan. It’s also a major aspect of Arthur Smith’s identity as a play-caller and head coach. They will need to put together long, sustainable drives to compensate for the lack of receiving weapons and lackluster defense.
San Francisco and Buffalo are two of the more dynamic offenses in the league, with an array of playmakers and crafty play designs. To keep them off the field and pound their vulnerable fronts into submission would be a probable winning strategy in those difficult matchups. This also involves putting the ball in the hands of their most electrifying and productive playmaker. The more times Patterson touches the ball, the better the chances are that points are going to be scored.
Staying consistently disciplined defensively
When your defense is trying to punch above its weight, all of the players must be fundamentally sound. Players must know their assignments, whether it’s from a gap or coverage standpoint. One of the more significant recent developments is the Falcons’ defensive organization. Outside of the loss against Tampa Bay, opposing quarterbacks are either holding onto the ball longer or turning the ball over.
The Falcons have produced an interception in four straight games. They are limiting explosive plays and holding their own upfront in the trenches. It’s been a surprising transformation for a defense that looked so overmatched at the beginning of the season. Steven Means recently took the initiative to address the team, which seemed to leave a lasting impact within the defense. When a popular veteran player speaks, the locker room will listen and become more accountable as a group. Stressing accountability, trusting Dean Pees, and not allowing quarterbacks to carve them up so easily is helping an overmatched defense become overachievers in pushing the Falcons towards playoff contention.
Creating more designed plays for Kyle Pitts
It was a beautiful scene for the Falcons to see their star tight end run freely to the first down marker to secure their second divisional road win of the season. On third and 14, Pitts was motioned to the right as Matt Ryan ran a play fake. Carolina’s defense got caught out of position on the misdirection allowing the first-round pick all the space in the world to gain the necessary yardage to convert on third down. That play was another indicator of how much damage Smith can do as a play-caller and how Pitts can gain 23 yards in a flash. It will raise questions, however, about why these big chunk plays can’t happen more often.
Pitts has been largely inconsistent since his monster performance against Miami in October. Not having him receive eight to ten targets a game has to be frustrating for the entire offense. In fact, the last time he was targeted eight times was against Miami. There needs to be a greater emphasis on countering defenses, who structure their game plan around containing Pitts. From running rub route concepts to getting him insolated on the outside, the offense can only score 24 or more points if Pitts is consistently involved. Pitts is more than capable of handling the pressure.
No tight end has more contested catches (12) than him this year, per Pro Football Focus. It’s on Smith and Ryan to do more in making him a bigger, more effective focal point of the offense.
Handling the personnel shuffle in the secondary
Erik Harris suffered a season-ending pectoral injury in the Falcons’ win over Carolina. Although Harris has notable flaws as a player, there is no denying his value as a leader. Players greatly respected him for being an organizer in the secondary. Replacing a starter this late in the season will always be challenging.
Jaylinn Hawkins and Richie Grant will have to step up. After starting the season with a bang, Hawkins has been on the receiving end of a few big plays in recent weeks. His mental processing will need to improve to avoid these errors. The same applies to Grant, who has missed a fair share of tackles and been glaringly out of position. If the Falcons are going to contain the likes of Stefon Diggs and George Kittle in the future, the young safeties will have to make major strides.
On a positive note, Fabian Moreau has been playing much tighter coverage and proving himself to be a viable starter in the NFL. With A.J. Terrell playing like a certified All-Pro, Moreau will continue to see plenty of targets come his way. Hopefully, he can play as he did against Carolina, where he only allowed a 48.8 passer rating on five targets, according to Pro Football Focus. His improvement will be vital for the secondary to hold up against these dangerous aerial attacks.
Arthur Smith’s continued push for mental toughness
There are several angles you can go when assessing Smith. The Falcons being only 21st in red zone scoring percentage can be a topic for conversation. Not adding a wide receiver to the roster following Calvin Ridley’s decision to step away from the sport can be critiqued.
Instead of focusing on statistics and personnel issues, let’s acknowledge how Smith has elevated the team. It’s well-documented how the Falcons are in salary cap hell. Smith doesn’t shy away from the topic, nor does he use it as an excuse if the team falls short in a particular game. He accepts reality and makes adjustments as best as he could. It hasn’t always converted into success, but it’s building belief within a locker room. That’s what you want to see in the first season with a new coach: A growing belief that your team can win games and be competitive in January. From the outside, Smith seems at turns cutthroat, honest, approachable, optimistic, and detail-oriented, and he seems to be pushing this team in the right direction.
As Davis said last Sunday, Smith provides solutions and maintains a positive approach when things go wrong. Smith can certainly improve on third-down play-calling and handling time management situations. Those flaws don’t mean he hasn’t done a tremendous job. His philosophy is working wonders for a team that controls its own destiny with four games left.