It often doesn’t take long for a new head coach to be under pressure. While expectations weren’t necessarily high for the Falcons, the hope was for the new regime to be creative, meticulous, and shrewd in setting up strategic game plans. That hasn’t quite been the case for Arthur Smith in two games.
The offensive line’s ineptitude has significantly affected the offense’s ability to move the ball in the air and on the ground. Facing double-digit deficits early in games is never ideal, particularly for a head coach who wants to be balanced by running the ball. Smith can’t be in control of everything when offensive linemen are blowing assignments or passes are being down at the line of scrimmage. That said, Atlanta’s struggles go beyond their personnel shortcomings.
There aren’t any signs of an identity being constructed. From baffling situational game management to conservative play-calling, Smith hasn’t yet injected much change to a team in desperate need of innovation. Two games are a small sample size, yet it’s still alarming how the third quarter of last week’s game against Tampa Bay was the only quarter where the Falcons played like a legitimately good football team.
With the schedule lightening up over the next four games, the opportunity is there for Smith to be more assertive with his play-calling and decision-making in what are likely to be close games. That opportunity starts this Sunday against the Giants.
A more aggressive, organized approach
The decision-making on fourth down during the first half of last week’s game was indefensible on Smith’s part. In a game against a far superior opponent, Smith opted to punt on fourth and one from Tampa Bay’s 49-yard line. It was a surprising decision, but you could make the argument Smith doesn’t trust the offensive line against a monstrous defensive front. That wasn’t the case on the next drive when Smith went for it on fourth and two from Atlanta’s own 45-yard line. To make matters worse, he called a quarterback sneak in an attempt to convert. That was instantly shut down by the likes of Vita Vea and Lavonte David.
For Smith to change his mind so quickly makes you question his thought process. Is there a concrete plan for fourth and short situations? Why didn’t Mike Davis receive the ball in those situations, considering his size and ability to pick up tough yards? Between that debacle and Ryan having to call two timeouts on the same drive in the second quarter, there were several moments that made you question what the new head coach was doing. He needs to be more decisive with his decision-making and play-calling. Smith must have the team more organized, as one of the timeouts came from Ryan noticing only ten players in the huddle. What took place against Tampa Bay in the first half was unacceptable. It can’t happen again for a team with little margin for error if that team wants to win.
The need for Kyle Pitts
It’s not that Pitts has been underwhelming in the early stages of his rookie season. It’s that he isn’t being utilized as prominently as expected. The transition to playing tight end in the pros is known for being difficult. With Pitts being moved around different formations rather than lining up as a traditional tight end, I believe he is destined to be a game-changing player.
He has made a noticeable impact with and without the ball in his hands. According to TruMedia, the Falcons are averaging 5.3 yards per play with Pitts on the field. They are averaging a measly 2.6 yards with him off the field. That’s not the only eye-opening statistic. The longest completion without him on the field is eight yards. When he is on the field, they have 26 plays of nine or more yards.
The Falcons are simply a much more dangerous team with Pitts. It’s astounding how helpless they’ve been without him on the field. At the same time, selecting a skill position player with the fourth overall pick means he’s going to be an indispensable figure in your offense. Smith needs to start treating Pitts like that. There needs to be more play calls designed to get him the ball. Whether it’s on naked bootlegs or rub route concepts, creating plays for Pitts to get the ball in space would do wonders for the Falcons’ offense.
The high-percentage, chunk plays were generated consistently by Smith during his two years as an offensive coordinator in Tennessee. He needs to do that with not only Pitts, but also another playmaking tight end that has been anonymous so far this season.
Get Hayden Hurst more involved
The expectation was that the Falcons would operate frequently in 12 and 22 personnel sets under Smith. This strategy would allow Pitts and Hurst to create mismatches while compensating for the lack of proven wide receivers on the roster. Smith is also experienced in utilizing two tight sets from his time in Tennessee. So far, there hasn’t been much usage with both tight ends on the field at the same time.
Hurst needs to be a bigger factor with his ability to make contested catches and produce big plays down the seam. If they are going to push the ball downfield more, Hurst will have to be featured in that plan. Russell Gage is likely going to miss Sunday’s game. As exciting as the possibility of signing John Brown is, he wouldn’t be able to play until next week against Washington. Smith can’t be dependent on a dink-and-dunk style of offense. Pairing Hurst with Pitts opens up the playbook for Smith and possibilities for Ryan to complete passes of 15+ yards. Hurst was considered one of the biggest standouts in training camp. It’s time to convert that training camp performance into real-time production.