There are three games left in the 2021 Falcons season, and with the holidays fast approaching and the end of the year hurtling our way, it’s a fine time to look at where this team is tracking to end up. They’ve won two more games than they did in all of 2020, which is one mark of success, but how are the offense and defense looking compared to a year ago?
Let’s start with the context that this is a very different offense than it was a year ago. Arthur Smith and Dave Ragone have replaced Dirk Koetter as play callers and planners, Julio Jones is gone and Calvin Ridley has only appeared in a handful of games, and the backfield was essentially remade entirely. That’s going to account for some changes and disparities, though as you’ll see, not all of them.
While stats will never tell us the whole story of how an offense is performing, they can give us a general sense of how things are going. Let’s take a look at that now.
2021 pace: 312 points, 5,327 yards, 5.1 yards per play, 26 turnovers, 305 first downs
2020: 396 points, 5,895 yards, 5.5 yards per play, 18 turnovers, 366 first downs
Here’s everything you need to know about this offense: It’s on pace to score the fewest points any Falcons team has put up since 2006, and that’s with an additional game. The only Matt Ryan-era era team that’s close is that doomed 2015 squad, which managed 339 points on the season. The offense has had a couple of productive stretches, but on balance it has basically been Cordarrelle Patterson heroically dragging this team into some form of relevance.
Dirk Koetter was under constant fire from this fanbase—yours truly very much included—for how frustrating his offense often was. Aside from a handful of big days for the passing game, especially in the first few weeks of the season, it was one-dimensional and set Matt Ryan up to get killed quite often. For all that, the Falcons finished the year somewhere near the middle of the pack leaguewide in yards and scoring, chiefly because the passing game was at least superficially solid.
This offense has neither the numbers nor the non-numerical success, as I don’t have to tell you. In their best weeks, Atlanta’s ridden an absurd individual performance or two in the passing game and/or a grind-it-out effort from the rushing attack to timely scores and ultimately wins. In their worst weeks, this offense has looked like the absolute dregs of 2011, 2015, and 2019. Matt Ryan has never had a less productive stretch than the one he’s mired in right now, Russell Gage and Kyle Pitts have been the only consistently useful receiving options in recent weeks, and the ground game has vacillated between encouragingly solid and borderline useless.
Koetter was a lightning rod because he was on his second stint and the offense was still messy, but Arthur Smith has proven unable to elevate an admittedly less talented version of that 2020 offense with the exception of Cordarrelle Patterson magic. He’s in zero danger of losing his job, but he’ll have to improve along with the talent level for things to be less grim in 2022.
2021 pace: 395 completions, 598 attempts, 3,812 yards, 22 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, 6.8 yards per attempt, 204 first downs
2020: 408 completions, 628 attempts, 4,363 yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 7.4 yards per attempt, 249 first downs
In one more game, the Falcons are on pace to throw for 500 fewer yards as a team, with five fewer touchdowns and six more interceptions than they managed in 2020, which we’ve already acknowledged was a frustrating year for the passing game. There’s no positive way to spin this: The Falcons are far worse at passing the ball than they were a year ago.
What’s behind that? As you’d expect, a combination of factors. This first-year coaching staff is pushing for more of a short passing attack with an emphasis on yards after the catch, and because that YAC largely hasn’t materialized, things look grim. Matt Ryan is averaging fewer intended air yards than any starter in the NFL besides Jared Goff, and that stylistic shift is driving much quieter production. For comparison, Ryan was 8th in the NFL in that metric a year ago.
The loss of this team’s most credible and established threats has hurt this offense significantly, as I don’t need to tell you. Kyle Pitts is a stellar talent and has been productive, but he’s a rookie who has been making rookie mistakes and facing defenses intent on taking him out of the game. Without Julio Jones and (mostly) Calvin Ridley, the Falcons don’t have any elite receiving threats, and Russell Gage’s recent heroism can’t mask that. Throw in Ryan trying to make throws his arm can’t always cash, Arthur Smith and company making some inexplicable decisions with red zone play calling in particular that have doomed otherwise productive drives, and a lack of consistent contributions from role players and you have a recipe for less success, which we’ve seen.
The #1 issue is pass protection, though. It seems odd to suggest that Ryan, who is set to absorb fewer sacks in 2021, is under duress more than he was a year ago. It also happens to be true, and Ryan already has absorbed more hits per Pro Football Reference (78) than he did all of last year (70). Jalen Mayfield’s ongoing struggles at left guard are a factor there, as is the obvious downgrade from Alex Mack to Matt Hennessy, even if Hennessy has at least shown some growth on the job. Aside from Chris Lindstrom, no lineman has been great all year long, and you can see the strain this has put on the passing attack.
The passing game is somewhat of a mess, then, and somewhere Dirk Koetter might be chortling quietly to himself in retirement as he watches fans grapple with this year. The amount of work ahead for this team in the offseason to turn the passing attack back into a strength looks pretty staggering on paper.
2021 pace: 413 attempts, 1,513 yards, 10 touchdowns, 3.7 yards per attempt, 74 first downs
2020: 409 attempts, 1,532 yards, 13 touchdowns, 3.7 yards per attempt, 86 first downs
Given the run defenses on the docket, I do expect the Falcons to actually exceed last year’s yardage total. Otherwise, though, these numbers are tracking to line up eerily well with 2020, except with arguably less success. That has to keep this coaching staff up at night.
The common denominator with the passing game’s struggles is the offensive line, and—surprise!—I would name that as the biggest problem area here. When this line blocks well, Mike Davis, Cordarrelle Patterson and Qadree Ollison all look like hard-charging runners with an ability to plow through contact and make magic happen. When they don’t block well, Davis in particular but also Patterson and Ollison look like they could not buy a yard with Jeff Bezos money. The number of times I’ve watched Davis get hits 2-3 times before he can make it to the line of scrimmage is truly disheartening, and he’s 39th among 47 qualifiers in terms of average yards before contact (Patterson is 29th). I think the Falcons could use an elite young back, but they have a capable backfield now that’s basically doomed to fail some weeks.
If you’re starting to sense that the offensive line basically needs 3-4 new players or drastic offseason improvement across the board, well, good sensing.
Be careful what you wish for, right? Even with an additional game, the Falcons are on pace to be a significantly worse offense this year than they were just a year ago, when we were mad at this team and mad at the world. Atlanta’s promise to be competitive and contend lasted much longer than most of us thought it would, but the wins did not come because this offense was firing on all cylinders most weeks.
Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot have a huge amount of work ahead to get this offense on track to be a consistently credible threat to the rest of the NFL again, and virtually no change should be or likely will be off-limits as a result. Unless the Falcons are going to build an elite defense in the next year or two, getting this kind of yearlong performance from the offense is going to lead to a much worse year in the standings most seasons, and that in turn is going to make it difficult to build a winner. We’ll see what the offseason brings.