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Unlocking the scoring potential of Atlanta’s top WRs will be key to 2021

The Falcons tried to get them the ball in the red zone a lot last year, with notably lackluster results.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Falcons were a notoriously frustrating red zone team in 2020. That both enabled Younghoe Koo’s magical season and led to us yelling at this team every Sunday, and when the dust settled Atlanta converted just 53.45% of red zone trips to touchdowns, the 26th-best mark in the NFL last year.

There are many, many reasons for that, but one of them is that Atlanta’s play calling did not allow them to be a well-oiled machine, and that plus a few execution errors held their scoring in check. What you may not have known is that from both within the red zone and further down the field, Atlanta did not shy away from targeting their top players in the red zone in 2020, but that it didn’t amount to much.

The statistic in question here is surprising but also fits with a larger theme of a feckless red zone offense. I saw it first in Kelsey Conway’s writeup at the Falcons site, and read it again without really believing it in Cynthia Frelund’s article. Here it is: Atlanta’s top trio of wide receivers lead the league in red zone targets 2020. The stat from Frelund’s writeup says end zone targets but it appears that number is actually red zone targets, not that it takes anything away from Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Russell Gage getting 42 targets in the red zone and converting as few as the team did. That’s bad!

This was not something you would have expected. Atlanta took 42 shots to their top trio of receivers inside the 10 yard line and Matt Ryan came away with 16 touchdowns. That’s a 45% conversion rate on those passes, which is not terrific when your receivers are as good as Atlanta’s are. For those curious, Julio caught 4 of 8 balls inside the 20 for zero touchdowns, Ridley caught 11 of 20 for 7 touchdowns, and Gage snagged 7 of 14 for 4 touchdowns.

The team only sent 7 targets to Brandon Powell, Laquon Tradwell, and Christian Blake, but the team scored 4 touchdowns on those targets. The importance of finding other quality options when teams are blanketing your best receivers is also not something that’s likely to be lost on the new coaching staff, but didn’t come to pass all that often last year due to a combination of Koetter’s frustrating playcalling and players like Powell and other reserve receivers not picking up the slack.

Arthur Smith has a lot of things to work on to drag this offense back to relevance. As Conway notes, he’s being handed a trio of receivers that combined for 16 touchdowns, 213 receptions, and about 2,900 yards, and while there’s much work to do be done building depth at the position and getting them into a position to succeed, chances are he won’t miss an opportunity to give Julio, Ridley, and Gage better looks in the red zone. Ensuring the Falcons don’t waste those precious red zone targets with one of the best wide receiver groups in the NFL will go a long way toward making this offense more than just the “let’s get Younghoe Koo in position for this field goal” show.