After a disappointing loss in their 2021 season-opener, we still have a lot of lingering questions about this year’s Atlanta Falcons team. While those questions center on the entire team, the ones involving head coach Arthur Smith are the most interesting ones for me.
Far too often in recent years, we as fans have been left with that bitter taste of defeat following an embarrassing Week 1 loss by the Falcons.
How is this year’s flavor any different?
Another year, another rough start
The only answer so far is that it’s not helmed by Dan Quinn. And thus we are free to wonder if this is another instance of here we go again or whether this is going to be different now that Smith is the head honcho in Flowery Branch.
Smith has an opportunity to readjust expectations with a stronger Week 2 performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a.k.a. the defending Super Bowl champions.
This is not too dissimilar to what happened to the Falcons when they faced the Bucs for the first time in 2020 back in Week 15, coming off the heels of a disappointing loss to the Los Angeles Chargers a week before.
The Falcons came out strong in that game and punched the Bucs in the mouth, getting off to a 17-0 halftime lead.
Of course, as was par for the course for last year’s team, they wound up blowing that lead in the end by a score of 31-27.
But the two scenarios are alike entering the week, given that the Falcons are considered an underdog. One stark difference is the perceived gap between both teams. In 2020, the Bucs were favored by a touchdown, while this week Vegas set the line in the double-digits.
Thus the challenge ahead of Smith is much more significant than it was a year ago for then-interim head coach Raheem Morris. Concerns over whether this 2021 Falcons can punch this current version of the Bucs in the mouth center on the former’s offensive line.
It was clear the Falcons’ offensive gameplan versus the Eagles was geared around their concerns over their inability to win in the trenches. Smith wanted to establish the run and utilize play-action passing to slow down the Eagles pass rush.
At least the running game was mostly effective, given that the Falcons rushed for 86 yards in the first quarter on their two opening possessions. Unfortunately for the Falcons, the red zone proved to once again be their Achilles heel, as the 147 total yards they were able to gain on a combined 29 plays on those two possessions yielded just six points.
That will have to change this week. But there’s at least a little room for optimism given that Smith helmed what was the best red-zone offense in the league the past two years in Tennessee. It’s not as if he forgot all those successful play calls.
So I expect a similar game plan from Atlanta this week. Run the ball, control the ball, and limit the exposure of your defense against a stacked Bucs offense. Since that halftime shutout by the Falcons in Week 15 last year, the Bucs have scored 276 points in their last 30 quarters of play.
That translates to 36.8 points every four quarters. For the record, the most prolific offense in NFL history was the 2013 Denver Broncos, which averaged 34.9 points per game over the course of an entire season, postseason included.
Answering the challenge
Another thing the Falcons have going for them is that they had a lot of success with their play-action passing in that Week 15 game against the Bucs a year ago.
Ryan’s 215 yards off play-action led the NFL that week (per PFF) and was one of his best games of the year in that category, thanks to a career-high 163 receiving yards from Calvin Ridley.
Russell Gage also has a tendency to play well against the Bucs. He’s had seven career games in which he had 65 or more yards receiving, and four of them have come against Tampa Bay, including 68 yards in that Week 15 matchup.
Smith shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel if he wants to deploy a successful gameplan against this Bucs defense. But he’ll have to get better results than he did a week ago against the Eagles.
Smith has preached accountability for months and we’ll find out if he and this year’s team can put that into practice. That of course starts upfront for a Falcons offensive line that looked consistently outclassed by a formidable Eagles front. The Eagles finished third in the NFL last season with 49 sacks, and I will give you two guesses as to which team finished 2020 right behind them with 48 sacks.
So this will be another week where the Falcons are dealing with mismatches up front, and scheme can only take them so far. At the end of the day, players will have to simply execute better. Smith will have to decide if better execution will come as a result of making some personnel changes.
As stated earlier, it’s not remarkable that the Falcons offensive line got their butts kicked this past Sunday. It has happened far too many times in the past. Yet if we’re going to believe that the Arthur Smith era is different from previous ones, then it’s imperative that they respond better than they have in the past by letting the bitter taste linger.
There’s no doubt it’s going to be a tall order. Yet Smith himself will tell you these are the situations you sign up for when you become an NFL head coach.
In a few days, we’ll have a better idea over whether Smith was made for this gig.
Do you expect the Falcons to play better this week against Tampa Bay? Or will they once again be outclassed? Will this team deliver on Smith’s message of accountability by executing better this week?