It’s no great secret around these parts that we lay a lot of Atlanta’s failings the past two seasons at the feet of Dirk Koetter, the recently-retired offensive coordinator for the Falcons. This team swung wildly between brutally ineffective and somewhat impressive on defense, but the consistent thread for this offense was that they were worse than their talent level indicated they ought to be, especially in the red zone. Koetter was never working with a top-to-bottom (or left-to-right, I guess) great offensive line, but Matt Ryan was still a very capable quarterback working with quality weapons, and that offense never should’ve been as ineffectual as it was.
Improvement will have to come primarily from coaching in 2021, which is where the switch from Koetter to Arthur Smith will hopefully be impactful. Ryan is still plenty effective but isn’t getting any younger, the offensive line is down two starters from last year and we have no idea how effective James Carpenter and Alex Mack’s replacements will be, and we’re weeks away from finding out whether the Falcons will be drafting a potential impact player for this year or a quarterback who will be expected to take over next year or in 2022. Significant improvement could still be ahead for the short term, but again, Smith is going to have to be responsible for a healthy chunk of it. If he can’t, we’ll owe Koetter a sheepish article or two, and this offense will have to be blown up a bit.
We’re all wondering exactly how Smith is going to do that, and while we’re still months away from seeing this offense in action, Jeff Schultz at The Athletic sat down to watch some film and chat with the Falcons’ new head coach. The far-ranging interview is worth reading, but my most encouraging takeaways concern Smith’s intent to make this team better in pressure situations like late in games and in the red zone.
That was a problem last year, as everyone noticed. Six of Ryan’s 11 interceptions came in the 4th quarter in 2020, he was sacked 15 times out of 41 total for the year, and in general the passing game was worse in the fourth quarter than any other. Inside the red zone, the passing game’s effectiveness waned as well, and the ground game basically cratered as this team too often bunched up its personnel and ran maddeningly predictable plays. Again, personnel played a role there—Ryan’s fourth quarter fade after a career made on fourth quarter comebacks is a concern, and there were far too many boneheaded running plays and dropped passes in the red zone—but Smith sees something more than just talent and coaching at work.
“Clearly it didn’t work, maybe for multiple reasons,” Smith said. “Maybe something was broken. Maybe there was a lack of confidence late in games. Why is that? I don’t know. But these games are going to come down to the last possession more times than not. In 75 percent of our games, a team is in striking distance in the fourth quarter, which is the way the league wants it.”
What generally causes late-game breakdowns?
“For whatever reason, doubt crept in, like they were waiting for something bad to happen,” he said. “I’ve been on bad football teams that were not confident. But (at Tennessee) when we got into one-score games, we thought we were going to win. We did. That was our mentality. It comes down to guys being confident situationally and trusting each other. It’s just a mentality.”
Smith’s task will be rebuilding that confidence, but part of rebuilding that confidence is just running a more successful offense. The new head coach has vowed to achieve a balanced offense, but as he noted to Schultz, there’s no reason that balance has to mean predictability. Smith said it’s not imperative to run 50% pass, 50% run, and that the kind of “let’s run on early downs” mentality that animated the offense the last couple of years will go away in favor of leaving the defense guessing. That kind of subterfuge was part of what made Kyle Shanahan and (occasionally) Steve Sarkisian’s Atlanta offenses so fun to watch.
“I love creating the conflict — constantly changing personnel and throwing motions at the defense,” Smith said. “And we pride ourselves at our core the way we’re going to play up front — with effort and finish and speed off the football.”
Go read the whole piece if you have a subscription to The Athletic because it’s extremely worthwhile, but an offense that maximizes the pieces the Falcons have and isn’t quite so predictable should be a major positive for Atlanta in 2021. Let’s hope Smith and the Falcons can get there.