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Final Falcons snap counts from a season-ending loss to the Saints

What can we learn from how the team divvied up playing time in their final game?

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The less we say in terms of big, sweeping statements regarding that loss, the better. I don’t want to think about it more than I have to, given that the Falcons lost to the Saints and it was one final reminder of how far this team has to go. At least we can focus on the potentially exciting changes ahead now that the season is over.

Instead, let’s go right to the details, namely the snap counts. An injury opened up a hole in the starting lineup and we do have a few interesting notes to share, so let’s get to it.

Offense

Matt Ryan: 50

Jake Matthews: 50

Colby Gossett: 50

Matt Hennessy: 50

Chris Lindstrom: 50

Kaleb McGary: 50

Russell Gage: 45

Olamide Zaccheaus: 39

Tajae Sharpe: 38

Kyle Pitts: 37

Cordarrelle Patterson: 18

Mike Davis: 18

Qadree Ollison: 16

Hayden Hurst: 12

Parker Hesse: 11

Keith Smith: 9

Lee Smith: 4

Christian Blake: 3


With Jalen Mayfield out for the first time all year, it was Colby Gossett who stepped up at left guard. The team’s willingness to plug him in there ahead of Josh Andrews and Drew Dalman, and earlier talk of having him back up right tackle when Kaleb McGary was out for a game, suggests this team holds him in some esteem. That versatility, a solid enough effort against a tough New Orleans front, and his familiarity with Dwayne Ledford makes me think he’ll be a no-brainer re-signing for this team. He is a restricted free agent and should come affordably.

It was interesting to see how few carries the Falcons doled out on Sunday, which was probably partially a product of falling behind so badly. There were only 11 carries to go around despite all three backs basically evenly evenly splitting snaps, with Patterson largely disappearing, Davis leading the backfield in yards but fumbling twice, and Ollison turning his one carry into an impressive touchdown run. Patterson is a free agent, Davis is under contract but isn’t guaranteed to return after an up-and-down season, and Over The Cap has Ollison listed as an exclusive rights free agent. It’s very, very possible that Ollison will step into a more prominent role next year, given that he’ll be easy to re-sign and has fresh legs.

The team has some big decisions to make at receiver, where Gage, Zaccheaus and Sharpe dominated snaps Sunday. Gage has indicated he’d like to return and has been, minus a few notable miscues along the way, the team’s most reliable and productive receiver for long stretches this season. If the deal works, I wouldn’t be surprise to see him back, and the same is true for Zaccheaus, who chips in on special teams and is a solid reserve. One of the team’s biggest priorities this offseason has to be ensuring that their top three receivers are never Gage, Zaccheaus and Sharpe again, though.

This seems like it will be the last time we see either Hayden Hurst or Lee Smith in Atlanta, as Hurst is headed for free agency after a pretty quiet season and Smith may have retired, and Hesse came on in the past few weeks to be a useful part of this group. I’d expect it to be Pitts, Hesse and some fresh faces at the position in 2022.

Defense

Deion Jones: 72

Foye Oluokun: 72

Fabian Moreau: 72

Duron Harmon: 71

A.J. Terrell: 70

Shawn WIlliams: 65

Steven Means: 53

Grady Jarrett: 52

Adetokunbo Ogundeji: 36

Mike Pennel: 34

Ta’Quon Graham: 31

Brandon Copeland: 28

Dante Fowler: 27

Marlon Davidson: 26

Anthony Rush: 26

Richie Grant: 22

Mykal Walker: 18

Darren Hall: 16

Jaylinn Hawkins: 1


Looking at this list makes a couple of things profoundly clear, as they have been clear all season: Dean Pees has his favorites, and this team badly needs to upgrade its defensive talent.

Let’s tackle the first item first. It’s incredible to me that in the season finale, particularly in a game where the Falcons struggled mightily to put the brakes on the Saints offense, that this team would lean so heavily on its veteran safeties. Jaylinn Hawkins, who had such bright flashes earlier this season, has essentially been benched the past two weeks for Shawn Williams, a veteran who came up from the practice squad. Unless the Falcons are planning on bringing back Williams and giving him an expanded role, I can’t think of a single compelling reason to effectively park Hawkins, who is young and under contract and played well earlier this season, in favor of the veteran. It comes down to, as

Means is the other example. A good guy and a solid player, Means is also one of the league’s least productive pass rushers, but has dominated snaps all season because Pees trusts him a great deal. Presumably when the Falcons make upgrades to the roster this coming offseason, Means or a similar player will have a lesser role in next year’s defense. If that’s not the case, it’ll be an indictment of this team’s ability to add talent, of Pees’ stubbornness, or potentially both.

That’s not to say that Pees doesn’t play younger players, a criticism that has been levied at him repeatedly this season. I would not have expected either Ogundeji or Graham to play major roles in 2022 given where they were drafted, but Ogundeji has gotten a ton of run and Graham has looked really good at times in a limited but still significant role. Grant not getting more run has been a consistent disappointment, but Pees has found time for Hall, who has had some legitimately impressive games of his own. That experience for Ogundeji, Graham and Hall in particular makes me think all three will have a running start to be significant contributors next year, which is good because the team badly needs them to be.

There are no massive surprises in these snap counts outside of Williams, but the fact that midseason signings and practice squad elevations pulled significant snaps here at the end of the season should speak volumes about how much work is ahead for this defense. That’s true even if you believe, as I do, that the team found some players who may have done enough to return next season.

Special Teams

Richie Grant: 23

Avery Williams: 23

Daren Bates: 21

Mykal Walker: 16

Jaylinn Hawkins: 16

Keith Smith: 16

Christian Blake: 14

Shawn Williams: 12

Parker Hesse: 12

Adetokunbo Ogundeji: 11

Kendall Sheffield: 11

Steven Means: 9

Younghoe Koo: 9

A.J. Terrell: 7

Ta’Quon Graham: 7

Marlon Davidson: 7

Anthony Rush: 7

Darren Hall: 7

Olamide Zaccheaus: 7

Qadree Ollison: 7

Josh Harris: 6

Austin Trammell: 6

Thomas Morstead: 6

Kaleb McGary: 4

Jake Mattehws: 4

Chris Lindstrom: 4

Colby Gossett: 4

Lee Smith: 4

Drew Dalman: 4

Rick Leonard: 4

Josh Andrews: 4

Duron Harmon: 2

Brandon Copeland: 2

Cordarrelle Patterson: 1


The list of names here is going to change a lot from this year to next year, as many of the players on it may not be back in Atlanta. Let’s focus our notes on the two guys on the top of it, who will be here.

Grant has been so integral to this special teams unit that it’s worth wondering what might happen next year if he has a starting job at safety or nickel, as I sure hope he does. The team didn’t draft him to play special teams, per se, but I noted in preseason that I expected him to have a huge role there even if he didn’t end up playing a ton on defense. That’s more or less exactly what happened, but I wouldn’t expect that to repeat in 2022.

Avery Williams, on the other hand, will probably not get anywhere near a starting job or significant role on defense any time soon. He was drafted to play special teams, and he’s settling in there nicely. Williams has handled punts all season and took over from Cordarrelle Patterson on kickoffs, finishing the season strong in both areas and contributing on coverage as well. With so much uncertainty—Younghoe Koo, Thomas Morstead, Josh Harris, and many others are all free agents—it has to be nice for Marquice Williams to know he’ll have Williams to rely on next year and potentially for many more years to come.

One final note: Josh Andrews had one of the most ill-timed injuries I can possibly imagine. He was set to open as the team’s starting left guard, but after he got hurt Jalen Mayfield took over that spot and ran with it all season, and Andrews ended up playing a combined 10 regular season snaps, all on special teams. I genuinely feel for him.