“What kind of identity do you want to build here with this team in Atlanta?”
That was the first question I asked Arthur Smith during his introductory press conference after being named head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. I was trying to discern how meaningfully we should look to Tennessee’s offense as a model for what Smith wanted to build here in Atlanta.
“Well, certainly, we want to be great up front,” Smith responded. “We want to have a fast team and we certainly want to be physical on both sides of the ball. We want guys that will be great teammates and we’re going to hold our best players accountable. That’s what it is, drop the entitlement – not to say it was here – but that will be a big message in the locker room and we want to be adaptable because things change. Where you’re drafting from changes year-to-year, and you’re adding pieces and you want to be flexible, and we want guys that are going to be adaptable especially week-to-week, we have to play the game to win.”
One season into Smith’s tenure, it’s the final sentence that has been stuck in the back of my mind. Versatility is immensely important for success in the NFL, but it’s tricky to attain. Some of the best teams in the league over the years have been chameleons. New England can spread it out one week and run the ball 45 times the next. While Kansas City’s offense looked like its wires were crossed midseason, the team’s defense became one of the best in the league and helped spur another playoff push.
It’s not enough to rely on one strength to overcome all obstacles. This is a league of attrition, and Smith has not shied away from pointing out the toll that injuries will have on a team throughout the fall. With this mindset, versatility is as much a necessity as it is a desired strength.
Atlanta has dealt with its fair share of injuries this season, but it hasn’t been devastated by them. Still, we saw Smith display creativity on offense with personnel packages and change approaches week to week to fit the game at hand. After going back to that introductory press conference, it’s clear that it was right there on the surface.
Versatility on offense
This season, the Falcons were the only team to have five different personnel groupings each account for at least eight percent of their entire offense. Here is a breakdown of their top five personnel groupings:
- 11 personnel (30 percent - second least)
- 12 personnel (28 percent - tied for third)
- 21 personnel (20 percent - fourth most)
- 13 personnel (8 percent - fourth most)
- 22 personnel (12 percent - second most)
Their best offensive weapon is an embodiment of the versatile personality the Falcons adopted in 2021. A former wide receiver and Pro Bowl kick returner, Cordarrelle Patterson transitioned to running back with the Falcons, but essentially made plays all over the field. He finished the year leading all players with 1,600 combined yards (618 rushing, 548 receiving and 434 on kick returns), which is the most by a Falcon since Julio Jones had 1,689 yards in 2018.
Now, back to Smith’s response to my question at the press conference this time last year; the first part of his response is important too. There are certainly styles of play that teams want to adopt, and Smith addressed that in his answer. He wants to be tough on both sides of the line of scrimmage (great), he wants speed and physicality (who doesn’t?), and he wants players to hold one another accountable. Those are all different than a true identity.
Styles can lead to an identity, however, and there is perhaps no greater example of that than what Smith left in Tennessee. No team is embodied more by one player’s presence than the Titans are by Derrick Henry. His physicality is the driving force behind what the Titans do. But Smith didn’t just rely on Henry to be the defining aspect of the team, he used that expectation that Henry would be the engine to enhance other parts of his unit.
According to Sharp Football Stats, Tennessee’s passing attack had nearly as many successful plays (52 percent) as its run game (55 percent) in 2020.
Versatility on defense
Most of this piece has focused on Atlanta’s offense because that’s the part of the team that Smith touches most directly, but it’s here that I will bring up the defense. Just as Smith sought to complement Henry in Tennessee through his play-calling, I’ve noticed a complementary style of football between Atlanta’s offense and defense this season.
Under Dan Quinn, the Falcons were best positioned to build a quick lead and then rely on a bend-don’t-break defense with an emphasis on creating turnovers. When those quick leads failed to materialize, however, Atlanta didn’t always pivot to Plan B quickly enough. That’s something I believe Smith’s team this season did very well.
That belief cemented itself during a particularly memorable series of events in an otherwise forgettable game.
On “Thursday Night Football” against the New England Patriots, the Falcons put together their best drive of the game down 10-0 midway through the second quarter. The team needed to conjure some momentum on offense. Atlanta drove the ball down to New England’s 14-yard line before Matt Ryan was sacked on a third-and-1, setting up a 45-yard field goal attempt for Younghoe Koo. Koo’s kick was good, but a pre-snap penalty moved the ball back 5 yards, and his second attempt missed the mark.
After a true setback on offense, what did the defense do? On the very first play following what was essentially a turnover, the Falcons blitzed Foye Oluokun and sacked Mac Jones for a 14-yard loss. That negative play led to a three-and-out and is emblematic of the type of complementary football these Falcons seem to want to play. That, of course, relies on a willingness to adapt in-game.
Adaptability can’t just apply to the players; it must also apply to those deploying them.
And while we’re on the topic of defense, I expect this defense to evolve significantly in the next year or so. Pees noted midway through the season that his unit was a bit behind in their understanding of his scheme compared to previous groups he’s coached, and he explained as much after the final game against New Orleans.
“This is not an easy system that they are learning, but we have made a lot of growth, and I’m expecting that going into next year that growth will really pay off for us,” Pees said, according to Josh Kendall of The Athletic. “You take your lumps sometimes learning the system. I’ve seen big strides. Early in the season, it seemed like whatever you called there was one guy making a mistake somewhere. Whereas now there are a lot of calls where nobody is making a mistake, and we’re making some plays.”
A lack of true versatility can be forgiven as part of the educational process, but it’s clear already that Pees’s version of defense offers more flexibility than the one Quinn liked to employ.
Flexibility, not just versatility
One example of how the Falcons are willing to change week-to-week is the way they deployed superstar corner A.J. Terrell in Week 17 against the Buffalo Bills. Facing a must-win matchup, Atlanta chose to allow its best cornerback to shadow top receiver Stefon Diggs. After playing only three snaps at the right outside cornerback position all season long, Terrell registered 18 snaps on the right side as a result of shadowing Diggs. It wasn’t Terrell’s best game, but it’s clear the Falcons decided that was their best bet against an explosive Buffalo offense.
“That’s what you do when you’re trying to win the game,” Smith said of the defensive alteration. “So, I thought that was best under the circumstances. I thought that was best for this game plan. It was a nice job by those guys executing that package and A.J. did a nice job matching for the most part, but that will always be our charge every week. You always look to problem solve and give us the best chance to go win a game.”
There’s a reason I haven’t mentioned specific statistics in this piece, and it’s not just because Atlanta’s stats weren’t particularly impressive this past season. It’s foolish to focus on the byproduct of a process when that process is still being established. Stats are the result of a mindset and an approach, and pointless without that context. It’s the mindset here that matters.
I remember a specific media session a few years ago when Raheem Morris – then the Falcons’ wide receivers coach – explained that the team wanted “Clones of No. 11” when they had to substitute for Julio Jones. Now, I’m certain there’s a level of nuance to that sentiment that one phrase can’t fully capture, but that at least suggests a certain level of plug-and-play mentality.
That doesn’t appear to be the case with Smith’s team. Whether it’s Lee Smith, Olamide Zaccheaus or Shawn Williams, this staff has shown a willingness to adapt to the players it has at its disposal. That led to the Falcons being in a lot of games, and certainly at least competitive for a half of football.
In the NFL, the best teams are those who can successfully adapt to meet the challenge directly in front of them. Atlanta attempted to do that in 2021. The talent might not be all the way there yet, but the mindset might be.