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Where the Falcons found success and fell short in 2021

While expectations weren’t particularly high for the Falcons this season, they had to make some progress during a difficult rebuilding process after three lost seasons.

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

It’s never easy to start over as a franchise, especially when you pushed so hard to build your roster into a championship-caliber team after several seasons. The Falcons had to face a new reality after considering themselves to be in “win-now” mode since 2017. They were no longer an offense filled with a plethora of highly-regarded, productive players. They didn’t have their superstar wide receiver anymore. It was a team filled with mostly unknowns.

Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot did what they could to assemble a roster under stringent cap limitations. It was a season where they had to assess which players from the previous regime could still be long-term assets. At the same time, they had to identify the right talent to help rebuild the roster and shape their vision as an organization.

Before the season, I wrote a piece on what success would look like for the Falcons. There wasn’t a specific win total mentioned. Wins weren’t all that relevant for a team that simply wasn’t built to compete for a playoff spot in 2021. Despite their best efforts to stay competitive and play spirited football, it was evident they weren’t ready to be one of the seven best teams in the NFC.

What was relevant was how Smith implemented his philosophy as a first-year head coach. How young players progressed into becoming genuine leaders and difference-makers on a team in dire need of them was vital.

It’s not a matter of devaluing wins because wins build confidence within the locker room. It’s a matter of understanding the circumstances and realizing what is most realistically attainable for a talent-deficit team. The primary expectation consisted of Smith setting the foundation by taking command as a leader and utilizing his play-calling expertise to inject life into a franchise that needed a major overhaul following three seasons of lifeless, directionless football.

Highly-regarded young players grow into franchise cornerstones

If the Falcons have done something consistently right over the past few years, it has been how they used their first overall draft pick. Chris Lindstrom, A.J. Terrell, and Kyle Pitts have been the last three players selected as the first player in the Falcons’ respective draft classes. Talk about a collection of outstanding young players.

All three players had tremendous seasons and became top-tier players at their respective positions. If you put together a top-five list of Falcons’ players this season, all three rising stars would be on the list, along with either Cordarrelle Patterson, Younghoe Koo, or Matt Ryan.

Terrell has risen into an All-Pro caliber cornerback. From his route recognition to ball skills to fluidity in man coverage, he is everything you can ask for in a certified lockdown cornerback. There wasn’t a game where Terrell didn’t make at least one standout play. Per Pro Football Focus, Terrell only allowed 29 catches for 200 yards on 66 targets this season. He also only allowed 44% of passes to be completed in his direction. All of those stat totals are the lowest in the league among all cornerbacks. Whatever metric is used to assess cornerback play, Terrell will be at the top of all lists and grades. He had a season for the ages and gives the Falcons something extraordinary at one of the most valuable positions in football.

For all the offensive line’s ineptitude, Lindstrom managed to rise above the incompetence and put together the most complete season of his young career. To be the only guard in the league not to allow a sack in 17 games is remarkable. Lindstrom was as dependable as they come in pass protection. When the running game showed glimpses of progress, the stout right guard was at the forefront, making impressive seal blocks and getting to the second level to help spring open explosive runs.

As the Falcons’ interior offensive line proved to be a total disaster elsewhere, Lindstrom provided stability and standout play at a position where it took years for them to get decent play from following Harvey Dahl’s departure in 2011. His performances against Tampa Bay were particularly impressive, getting the better of the ferocious tandem of Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh.

Although he was anonymous at times during the long season, Pitts did more than enough to validate his status as a generational talent. What he brings to the table as a playmaking tight end is going to give opposing defensive coordinators nightmares for years to come. His sheer explosiveness, strong hands, and spatial awareness are extremely impressive for a player that entered the league with enormous expectations. The physicality of the league didn’t seem to overwhelm him either.

You have to wonder how more effective Pitts would have been if Calvin Ridley didn’t take time away from football to focus on his mental health, as Ridley’s presence would have relieved some pressure off the rookie. Nevertheless, Pitts made countless impressive plays that proved how much of a rare breed he is as a tight end. His 522 receiving yards from wide alignments per Pro Football Focus showcases how dangerous he can be when lined up as an outside receiver.

Several key young players left a lot to be desired

As great as those three players performed, it’s difficult to find many other positives from the young players on the roster. Russell Gage did explode in the second half of the season following a difficult, injury-riddled start to the season. The front office should seriously consider re-signing him, as he is set to become a free agent.

The same applies to Foye Oluokun, who also struggled at the beginning of the season before finding more comfort in the MIKE role and made more standout plays during the final stretch of the season. Both players will be entering their prime and can certainly be counted on as dependable players going forward if they are re-signed.

The rest of the young players largely underperformed. The reason why the Falcons can’t claim to have nailed every first-round pick in recent years is due to Kaleb McGary’s frustrating play. For all the glimpses of improvement in pass protection and gritty blocks as a run blocker, his mistakes are much more damaging. It’s difficult to depend on a player who makes glaring mistakes in pass protection and can fall apart if he starts the game poorly.

To have short arms and slow feet is an ugly combination for a tackle to have. McGary hasn’t been able to overcome those flaws to become a reliable starting right tackle. What makes matters worse is that he is only the beginning of the offensive line’s problems.

Jalen Mayfield and Matt Hennessey were both largely overmatched as starters. If the team had an adequate replacement on the roster, Mayfield would have benched by October. His poor body control and weak punch, along with an inability to diagnose stunts, make him a massive liability in pass protection. There is nothing to suggest he should be a starting guard in the NFL.

Speaking of body control, no offensive lineman on the Falcons was on the ground more often than Hennessey. His inability to gain leverage and create movement greatly limited the running game. The inability to identify twists and allow rushers to get clean shots on Matt Ryan was a major reason why no team allowed more quarterback hits than the Falcons. Hennessey is another player that shouldn’t be guaranteed a starting job in 2022.

As the offensive line looks to be in shambles, the defense isn’t in a much better place. Besides Terrell and Oluokun, there aren’t any young defensive players on the roster that have proven to be or look capable of being high-level starters. Jaylinn Hawkins and Anthony Rush did show promise, but they will need to do more to become starters. Players like Marlon Davidson, Mykal Walker, and Richie Grant failed to make the strides the coaching staff and fanbase were hoping for.

Outside of a stunning pick-six against Tom Brady, Davidson failed to offer much as an interior pass rusher while being regularly swallowed up as a run defender. Walker did create a few big plays, most notably against Carolina and Buffalo. His lone start against Jacksonville did consist of missed tackles and blown coverage assignments. To think he can automatically slide into a starting position next season would be dangerous.

The starting linebacker role will have to be earned if Oluokun or Deion Jones departs, similar to how Grant needs to earn his place at safety. The constant missed tackles and undisciplined style of play put him in Dean Pees’ dog house on multiple occasions. For a second-round pick, Grant was as lackluster as a second-round pick can be in his rookie season.

The Falcons entered this season with many roster concerns. Can they claim any of those positional question marks entering the season were solved? Wide receiver, left guard, center, right tackle, edge rusher, nose tackle, corner, and safety are all positions that can use upgrades. Some of those upgrades could be on the roster with a (hopefully) returning Ridley and Isaiah Oliver. That said, it must be disappointing for the coaching staff to not have any players truly emerge as starters, let alone be potential difference-makers. There weren’t any genuine positive surprises outside of Patterson, who is turning 31 years old in March.

The young players looked overwhelmed on both sides of the ball. That’s one of the hardest realities the organization will have to accept from this season. In a rebuilding year, you must have lesser-known young players show progress into possibly becoming starters. That wasn’t the case in Atlanta. They didn’t see much improvement across the board from players they drafted or expected to develop following promising rookie seasons. The coaching staff will have to take some responsibility for that, as they endured their share of individual shortcomings.

The highs and lows of coaching

There isn’t a consensus viewpoint on Smith as a head coach. Some commend him for getting seven wins out of this roster and making them as competitive as they can be. Some ridicule him for his situational management deficiencies and short-yardage decision-making. Both are valid opinions based on his first season as a head coach.

Smith did gain the respect of his players and built a strong bond within the locker room. There wasn’t any controversy or discontent from players. Only glowing statements were made about how he makes players take accountability but remains supportive at all times. His transparency and desire to get better are felt across the organization. It’s great for a new head coach to take the necessary steps to build a team culture. That said, the fiery head coach did make critical mistakes that cost the team.

His mishandling of the late-game situation against Washington cost them a well-deserved win. To not give the ball to Patterson on what should have been a game-clinching drive after the dynamic playmaker scored three touchdowns was baffling. That drive featured two run plays to Mike Davis and a jailbreak screen that was easily gobbled up. Similarly, an inability to convert on multiple short-yardage situations against Tampa Bay and San Francisco due to strange play calls such as a quarterback sneak on fourth and two put them at a major disadvantage in a game against the defending Super Bowl champions and an NFC playoff squad.

You will make errors in your first year as an NFL head coach. It takes an adjustment period in commanding your team and being primarily responsible for how they perform every week. What was disappointing about those mistakes is Smith looked indecisive in those key moments. He always comes across as someone confident and direct with his approach. Being forward-thinking and aggressive is what Smith exemplified during his time at Tennessee. That wasn’t shown enough this season.

From not giving Davis short-yardage carries when they signed him to be their power back to struggling to find ways to get Pitts the ball in the red zone, there were notable maddening shortcomings when watching Smith’s offense. It’s something he must address, hopefully with better personnel at his disposal.

There still should be a positive outlook about Smith’s overall first year. The tactical errors and unfortunate mishandlings in critical situations can be corrected. What was ultimately required of Smith in his first season was to establish his vision, begin to build a culture, and live up to his reputation as one of the better offensive minds in the league. All three of those things came to fruition.

The Falcons were 7-2 in one-score games after several years of falling short in those exact games. Patterson’s rise from returner to one of the most prolific playmakers in the league has to be somewhat attributed to Smith’s intelligence in utilizing him. Ryan had his best season since 2018 and looked to be rejuvenated in the offense. For Ryan to play at a high level and put the team on his back at times was a stunning sight, especially given the limitations around him. Smith helped bring the best out of the franchise quarterback, especially after an ugly first three games where it seemed like Ryan couldn’t throw the ball past 15 yards. It’s going to be plenty of work to construct a contender in Atlanta, but they have the foundation under Smith’s direction.

The bigger lows and doubts come from Pees’ performance as a defensive coordinator. While the defense played hard and forced a turnover in 12 consecutive games, they seemed to have benefited from playing weak quarterback opposition rather than producing big plays by their own individual excellence or schematic brilliance.

Pees’ defense allowed the seventh-most yards in the league. Quarterbacks were able to find gaping throwing windows in his Cover 2 coverage looks. Despite making history as the first team in 25 years not to allow a single 40-yard play in a season, they were still torn apart through the air in big games against playoff teams such as Tampa Bay, Dallas, and San Francisco.

As bad as the personnel currently is up front, there is no way a defense should only produce 18 sacks in 17 games. That’s what the Falcons managed to do. The lack of explosive edge rushers and disruptive interior pass rushers is apparent when looking at the roster. Players such as Dante Fowler and Davidson failed to produce when relied upon. Grady Jarrett couldn’t handle the burden of frequent double teams. Giving 45-50 snaps a game to journeymen like Steven Means was always going to limit the defensive line’s effectiveness as a unit.

Pees should be held accountable for not doing more to elevate an undermanned unit. This was the biggest question mark on the roster going into the season. The realistic hope was for Pees to design creative blitzes and bring pressure in a multitude of ways to make quarterbacks uncomfortable.

Instead of disrupting their rhythm, he opted to drop more players into coverage and rush three on many occasions. The idea of making quarterbacks play faster didn’t seem to apply for most of the season. Pees’ reputation as someone who brought frequent pressure in various ways didn’t translate at all. The Falcons were 11 sacks away from the team with the second-fewest sacks on the season, which ended up being the Eagles.

It’s no secret that Pees’ defense isn’t easy to learn. The highly-regarded defensive coordinator speaks openly about it. Still, something will need to change in 2022. Whether he works to make players feel more comfortable or looks to modernize his methods, the pressure will be on Pees to get more out of the defense. His disdain for analytics may not change. His admiration for playing Cover 2 won’t be suddenly gone.

What can be changed is how he utilizes his players’ biggest attributes and not be so fixated on his scheme. There is no denying the Falcons need reinforcements across the board defensively. How Pees works with them and looks to take more control of games rather than simply making sure they don’t make mistakes will be crucial for the Falcons’ rebuilding process.

Moving forward in 2022

Identifying and dissecting ways the Falcons could succeed in 2022 would be foolish right now. That can be done in early September when the season is on the horizon. Allow the organization to make personnel decisions with players currently on the roster, sign new players, and draft the next upcoming crop of players that will help put the Falcons back on the map as a contender.

Smith and Fontenot will have more flexibility to be more proactive in adding talent and making long-term decisions that will be beneficial to the team. The days of signing several journeymen players to one-year deals to fill out the roster should be over.

How the organization views high-priced players will be fascinating to observe. In the past, Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn would give extra chances to first-round picks or players they signed. They failed to be ruthless when they had to be. It took an extra year to move on from Vic Beasley. James Carpenter was given too many opportunities when it was clear he wasn’t good enough to start at left guard.

The current regime will need to be much more cutthroat in its evaluation process. Players like Fowler and Deion Jones shouldn’t be given extra chances because of their price tag and resumes. How they handle the futures of two underachieving veterans will be a solid indicator of what to expect from the organization in 2022. Are they going to be decisive or accommodating with players that let them down?

They did plenty of impressive things between blue-chip players developing, coaches bringing much-needed leadership, and having togetherness to prevail in intense situations. It’s time for them to take what they built and evolve it, allowing the Falcons to become a more complete team. That, in turn, will hopefully mean taking the initiative as an organization and crafting their own identity into becoming one of the better teams in the league.