The conclusion of the Falcons’ season was about as forgettable as it gets. A dull loss to New Orleans followed by an end-of-season press conference without any real significant news or soundbites coming out of it has left many wondering what’s next. Although the Calvin Ridley trade speculation is certainly heating up, the organization and Ridley have stayed quiet on the matter.
With the offseason approaching, it’s a good time to remember the 2021 season via one last roundtable discussion. This is going to be the biggest Falcoholic roundtable yet, with Aaron Freeman, William McFadden, Kevin Knight, and Matthew Chambers joining me. We will be getting into the most important talking points, along with some fun discussion about two of Atlanta’s top players this season.
After his first season as a head coach, did Arthur Smith instill more confidence in being the man to bring the Falcons back into contention, or did he leave you with more questions and concerns, or does he need another season before you can decide on his credentials?
Matthew Chambers: I have no hot take here. I definitely need more time.
Ultimately, you can frame Arthur Smith however you want. Some say he pulled in 7 wins with an absolutely atrocious roster, coming in right in the middle of all the rookie head coaches. Others criticized Smith’s play-calling and can point to some very concerning statistics showing those wins could be a fluke.
For me, it is tough to both expect a rookie head coach to be flawless or to really implement his vision with a roster this bad. This team has made me too jaded to hope or expect the new guy will fix all of the problems — show me playoff wins.
The only thing I know is that Smith turned out better than Urban Meyer.
Allen Strk: Smith’s overall performance gives a slight bit more confidence going forward. Despite all the situational management blunders and short-yardage woes, Smith did more to elevate the team than bring them down. The players were fully behind him. There was a real strategy behind his game plans in trying to best utilize players and exploit the opponent’s weaknesses.
While his lack of decisiveness was frustrating at times, the young head coach should be more proactive and confident with better personnel. Of course, it falls on him and Terry Fontenot to identify the talent to maximize their methods. They have done a decent job so far navigating through an arduous period, which is encouraging for the upcoming challenges that await them.
William McFadden: I’m sure there are wide-ranging opinions on Arthur Smith’s first season, but the performance of the coaching staff was high on my list of positives in 2021. I think they had a pretty solid plan of attack for a majority of the games they played despite often having lesser talent. It’s notable to me that the clear constant among their losses this season was a discrepancy in talent compared to their opponent. That’s not anything to pin on coaching.
Against equivalent talent, the Falcons won a lot of games. Smith clearly has an idea for how he wants his Falcons to play, but he showed an encouraging amount of flexibility in his weekly approach. The Falcons still need to develop a true offensive home base, but Smith’s creativity as a play-caller was on display in his first year.
Kevin Knight: Unfortunately, the state of the roster made any real evaluation of Arthur Smith extremely difficult. I saw some very encouraging things. His creative use of players, most notably Cordarrelle Patterson, gives me hope that he can make use of unique weapons and insert them into favorable matchups. There were certainly some glimpses of what this offense could be if more pieces were in place.
However, concerns abound as well. The offensive line was a trainwreck. Running the ball was inconsistent at best and an active liability for most of the season. Again, I think you can trace many of these issues to the central problem of 2021: the roster. With no cap space and fairly standard draft capital, along with the barren roster left by Dimitroff, this team was always going to struggle to compete. Let’s see what Smith and Fontenot can do with a real offseason under their belts. I’m hopeful.
Aaron Freeman: I’d be lying if I said I was disappointed in Arthur Smith during his first year, particularly with the unit that was under his purview: the offense. Despite all the issues on that side of the ball, including losing Julio Jones before the season, Calvin Ridley during the season, and the struggles of the run game and offensive line, I expected more out of that side of the ball. I always felt like the floor for a Matt Ryan-led offense was always middle of the pack. That was proven wrong this year.
The aforementioned factors contributed to why things didn’t work out, so I’m willing to show some degree of patience to see what develops in his second year before passing the final judgment. But too often, it felt like the Falcons weren’t consistently getting the most out of the talent, as limited as some will insist it was, on that side of the ball.
Did Cordarrelle Patterson have the greatest unexpected breakout season in Falcons’ history?
Matthew Chambers: If Patterson finished out the season stronger, he’d be in the conversation for the greatest unexpected breakout season in NFL history. I can’t think of a player coming in with lower expectations and turning into such a dynamic weapon.
Before the season, I thought Patterson as the team’s RB2 was one of the bigger depth problems. To see him turn into a PROBLEM for defenses was not anticipated. I can think of very few comparables, and none are close enough to mention. What Patterson did was truly special.
Allen Strk: The only two unexpected breakout seasons that come to mind are Roddy White in 2007 and Taylor Gabriel in 2016. White looked like a colossal bust going into that dark 2007 season. How he developed into a game-changing wide receiver was astonishing. For Gabriel to sign with the Falcons right before the season and turn into this dynamic playmaker was something nobody saw coming. As great as both of those seasons were, they aren’t on the same level as what Patterson did this season.
Patterson put the offense on his back in games and carried them to victories. At one point in the season, he was up there as one of the most valuable skill position players in the league. Patterson injected life into a Falcons’ offense that couldn’t have looked more sluggish to start the season. What he did as a runner and receiver at 30 years old will be fondly remembered by everyone.
William McFadden: I actually don’t think it’s recency bias to say yes. There may not be one specific part of his stat sheet that jumps out at first glance (aside from the 11 touchdowns), but it was his importance to all aspects of the offense that nobody really saw coming. He really energized this offense as both a runner and a receiver, although probably more as a receiver. Even when defenses began to key on him, Patterson had ways to win against matchups, and the Falcons did a good job getting him the ball in space.
I did do some research to come up with a few honorable mentions for this award. Eric Pegram came out of nowhere in 1993 to gain almost 1,500 all-purpose yards at running back. Who could forget Harry Douglas’s necessity-driven breakout in 2013? That same year, Paul Worrilow went from somebody not a single person on Earth had ever heard of to leading the Falcons with 127 tackles.
Kevin Knight: It’s certainly up there. Patterson was always a uniquely talented player, but teams always tried to force him into a single role. Smith threw that out and simply played Patterson wherever the matchup was best, and both were rewarded with a tremendous season.
I think bringing back Patterson should be a priority this offseason, as this team needs some continuity, and the cupboard is bare enough already. As a 30-year old running back with one year of production, I don’t expect the offers will be high enough to pry Patterson away from Atlanta.
Aaron Freeman: I can’t come up with a single alternative option. And if there was someone else, it happened long enough ago that few today will remember it. Other players that had a breakout year such as this usually came in with expectations. Michael Turner’s 2008 season immediately comes to mind as an example of that.
Even if you were to look at the big jump Tevin Coleman made in his second year back in 2016, he too had high expectations when he arrived in Atlanta. I think most saw Patterson solely as a contributor on special teams and an occasional change-of-pace back entering this season, and for him to perform at or near a Pro Bowl level and emerge as the team’s most reliable playmaker was a very pleasant surprise.
As low as expectations were for the defense, the defense still had their fair share of disappointments. What let you down the most?
Matthew Chambers: The pass rush continues to scrape out new lows. I almost forget what it looks like when multiple players in red and black can get to the quarterback. However, 2021 is even more disappointing due to the statistical low in sacks, but also the absence of hope for a turnaround.
Only a few years ago, there was a chance Vic Beasley bounced back with a healthy Takkarist McKinley. There was talent. It didn’t result in much, but there was some basis for hope. In 2022, Dante Fowler won’t be here. Who is left after that even worth mentioning besides Grady Jarrett?
Allen Strk: It’s a tossup between Dean Pees not doing more to create pressure and the discouraging linebacker play. Watching Pees conjure up different blitzes and twists over the past decade created the belief that he can do the same in Atlanta. What he was brought was largely uninspiring on the field with an outdated conservative approach playing a ton of Cover 2, which is highly susceptible to allowing big plays.
Foye Oluokun and Deion Jones were supposed to be one of the top linebacker duos in the league. When you look at Jones’ skillset and credentials with what Oluokun did in 2020, it makes sense to believe these two players could be difference-makers on a defense in dire need of them. Instead, they were both often caught out of position against the run and struggled to get off blocks.
Oluokun showed some improvement by the end of the season, but it was still a down year considering how outstanding he was in 2020. Jones proved to be a major liability with his appalling open-field tackling, poor play recognition, and lack of gap discipline. For both players to fall well short of the high standards they set for themselves is the bigger letdown over Pees not being able to generate more pressure.
William McFadden: If the offense didn’t have a number of clutch late-game moments that resulted in wins, we would be feeling worse about this unit. That being said, the pass rush alone is the cause for the defense to be the most disappointing. Atlanta had the fewest sacks in the league by a wide margin, and it’s the clear 1A need for me entering the offseason.
Clearly, Grady Jarrett isn’t able to overcome the extra focus he gets each week to a level that will impact the game. He needs help coming off the edge, and even with the advances made in the secondary, the Falcons aren’t going anywhere defensively without a better pass rush.
Kevin Knight: The defense as a whole was actually better than expected, save for one glaring weakness: the pass rush. If not for quite literally the worst pass rush in the league, I think this defense could’ve been in the 15-20 range in terms of league rankings.
The Falcons got great play from the secondary despite it being pieced together mostly with scraps and rookies, and the run defense—outside of a handful of bad games—was solid. But the pass rush was so bad that it quite literally ruined the defense as a whole. Addressing EDGE has to be a massive priority this offseason.
Aaron Freeman: The play of Deion Jones was probably the most disappointing. The hope was Dean Pees’ borrowed mantra of “Do Your Job” from New England would lead to more consistency from Jones. He had some positive moments this past season, but they were too often outweighed by the missed tackles, poor awareness, and questionable effort.
It was frankly reminiscent of the 2008 season Michael Boley once had, where he went from one of the team’s most reliable playmakers to a player that was going through the motions under his third coaching staff in as many years. Boley would go on to have success in New York to finish out his career. It seems like Jones is also destined for a change in scenery.
What impresses you the most about A.J. Terrell’s emergence into becoming an All-Pro caliber corner?
Matthew Chambers: The quickness and unexpectedness is something I can’t recall in recent memories. Terrell was the third corner off the board in 2020. Even the Falcons tried but failed to trade up to get a different player. The selection was met with quite a lot of criticism, with a number of analysts and scouts thinking Terrell was too limited in his skill set to be drafted so early.
Those criticisms were proven wrong pretty quickly. Despite corner being one of the longer learning curves in the NFL, Terrell followed a strong rookie season with a Pro Bowl-worthy sophomore season. His coverage stats are absolutely unmatched. Even non-Falcons fans think he’s the league’s CB2 right after Jalen Ramsey.
The speed Terrell has become of the league’s top corners, and after only two seasons, is just not something you see outside of likely future Hall of Fame players.
Allen Strk: The balance of playing physical but not being overly grabby is something Terrell found in 2021. From watching him battle the likes of Michael Thomas and Keenan Allen in 2020, it was evident that Terrell loves challenging wide receivers at the line of scrimmage and doing everything he can to disrupt their routes. That could result in being penalized when getting too caught up in hand fighting and losing leverage.
Terrell looked much more composed and cut down on his penalties. There were plenty of indicators that the former first-round pick was going to develop into a star in his rookie season. One of the biggest things he needed to do to achieve that was cut down on his penalties and slightly refine his technique. Terrell did exactly that in becoming one of the league’s premier corners. How wide receivers have such a difficult time creating separation and getting a clean look at intended passes for them is a testament to how lethal Terrell is in coverage.
William McFadden: The respect he received from other teams. It’s easy to fall prey to the hype with certain players, but teams won’t lie to you. They really started to go away from A.J. Terrell early on in the year, which grabbed my attention. His numbers point to why teams didn’t want to test Terrell - those who did weren’t successful.
Quarterbacks completed just 43.9 percent of their passes when targeting Terrell - the lowest in the league - and their 47.5 passer rating was also bottom in the league. Terrell put himself in a position to make plays a lot as a rookie, but he struggled to make that final play. In his second year, he’s begun to make all of the plays, and the NFL has taken notice.
Kevin Knight: The fact that Terrell managed it, despite having the worst pass rush in the league in front of him. It’s hard enough to play at an All-Pro level on a good all-around defense, but Terrell did it on a bad one.
He was routinely asked to cover far longer than should be necessary and still looked like one of the best corners in the league. That’s incredibly impressive, and I think we’ll see an even better player (with more turnover production) if the Falcons can find a way to get pressure on the quarterback.
Aaron Freeman: Terrell’s ball-hawking skills and zone awareness were the most impressive thing. To see him be a lockdown man coverage corner while impressive is not particularly new here in Atlanta. We saw that often during the peak seasons of Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, not that long ago from 2014 through 2017.
But not since the prime of Brent Grimes a decade ago have we seen a cornerback look as impactful in zone coverage. Watching Terrell come over the top and close the distance to make last-second pass breakups in a variety of zone coverages truly showed how special a year he had.