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How the Falcons can continue to weather the storm

After putting up a valiant effort in Tampa Bay, the Falcons face two of the four teams that played in the conference championship last year next. Arthur Smith’s young, feisty team will likely relish the challenge.

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Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

The schedule makers didn’t do the Falcons any favors to start the season. In their first four games, they had to play two teams that received three extra days to rest and prepare following playing on Thursday night in the Rams and Browns. After the thrilling win over Cleveland, they were slated to face three of the top teams in the league from last season, including two teams that nearly faced each other in the Super Bowl. Playing Tampa Bay, San Francisco, and Cincinnati in succession is as grueling as it gets.

Win or lose, this demanding stretch of games won’t faze the Falcons one bit. It’s apparent that this is a resilient team under Arthur Smith’s leadership. Even when they appear overmatched on both sides of the ball, they have battled back and challenged the NFC’s top dogs from last season. The offense is currently one of the league’s most efficient, well-designed units. The defense has continued to play better at a fundamental level and make timely stops to prevent explosive plays.

After holding up well against a Tampa Bay team filled with firepower, the next two opponents are about on the same level in having game-changing offensive weapons and battle-tested defenses. The 49ers have arguably the best defense in the league to go along with a dynamic pass-catching trio. The Bengals have numerous explosive playmakers across their offense. It also can’t be overlooked how well-organized and disciplined their defense is.

These next two games are going to be significant tests for the Falcons. Regardless of the results, plenty of positive steps can be made by being competitive and balanced. Wins and losses won’t define this season. It’s going to be defined by young players emerging into franchise cornerstones, dependable starters, or potential contributors for the future. Here is what the Falcons must try to accomplish in these upcoming highly-anticipated matchups.

The offensive line needs to bounce back and be ready for the heat

One of the most intimidating aspects of this three-game stretch is how well-coached and calculated the opposing defenses are. Todd Bowles, DeMeco Ryans, and Lou Anarumo are three outstanding defensive coaches. They know how to be efficient with the pressure they design to put quarterbacks under duress. They know how to create coverage disguises to force quarterbacks into making regrettable decisions. That puts added pressure on the offensive line, as they must hold up to give Marcus Mariota time to make the correct read and survey the field.

They struggled badly in their first real litmus test against Tampa Bay. According to The Athletic’s Josh Kendall, the Falcons allowed five sacks and eight quarterback hurries last week after giving up a combined seven sacks and 35 quarterback hurries in their first four games. Elijah Wilkinson made several errors, particularly in pass protection. Jake Matthews got caught looking silly on a few occasions. Drew Dalman struggled to pick up pressures and looked overwhelmed against Tampa Bay’s vicious defensive front.

It doesn’t get any easier going against San Francisco’s deep defensive line and outstanding linebacker corps. For all Arthur Smith does in using play action and setting max protections, the offense can’t be solely dependent on it. Nick Bosa’s potential absence would certainly help, but players like Charles Omenihu, Samson Ebukam, and Kevin Givens have been causing havoc along with longtime stalwart Arik Armstead. The Bengals are creative with how they mix between blitzes and three man rushes, yet can always depend on Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard to give opposing tackles fits.

The offensive line has made serious strides, as they’ve been arguably the biggest surprise on the roster so far this season. The level of competition is significantly elevated in these matchups. If players like Dalman and Kaleb McGary want to solidify themselves as long-term starters, they have to remain disciplined and technically sound in pass protection for these upcoming tests. Being able to keep a clean pocket and attack defenses vertically is essential, especially in these games, which ultimately leads to a massive decision the coaching staff will have to make soon enough.

Building an identity while making the necessary change to truly evolve

The identity of becoming a hard-nosed, running team that keeps defenses guessing with varied formations, shifts, and motions is starting to become established. As Jamel Dean pointed out in a postgame interview, it’s clear what the Falcons are doing is different. Despite having two emerging stars in Kyle Pitts and Drake London, the urge to impose their will on the ground is something the Falcons are looking to do going forward.

Smith wants to play everyone in the backfield. The physical downhill style of Tyler Allgeier, the powerful one-cut ability of Caleb Huntley, and the explosive shiftiness with Avery Williams make for a well-rounded backfield. The return of Cordarrelle Patterson, who can literally do all of that, creates further excitement about the running game’s future.

For all the encouraging signs behind an offensive line growing in confidence, the offense can’t reach the heights of being a consistent, well-balanced potent offense with Marcus Mariota at quarterback. Mariota’s erratic arm, problematic decision-making, fumbling woes, and inability to handle pressure in the pocket make him more of a hindrance than an asset behind center. As gutsy and exciting as he can be at times, the mind-numbing mistakes have made it clear the coaching staff will need to make a change sooner rather than later.

These next two games could be the tipping point for Mariota, which sets up nicely for bringing in Desmond Ridder slowly, as two upcoming games against Carolina are looming. Ridder has to get an opportunity to prove his impressive preseason performances can translate to playing against starting-caliber opposition. His poise, decisiveness, and ball placement resembled a quarterback ready to start games. It’s time for the coaching staff to be proactive in the coming weeks in making the switch.

If they want to continue building this identity of pounding teams into submission, a consistent passing game will be required to make this a sustainable method to win games. Ridder deserves the opportunity to prove he can do what Mariota simply hasn’t been able to do and likely won’t be able to do after facing two stout defenses.

A more consistent pass rush

Since starting the season with a (by their standards) four-sack explosion against the Saints, the Falcons have only produced four sacks in the last four games. Yes, it should have been five sacks, but the NFL wants defensive linemen to gently put quarterbacks on the ground with how they are officiating these days.

Some of the recent matchups have made generating pressure an arduous task, with Cleveland having an elite offensive line and Tom Brady getting the ball out quicker than any other quarterback in the league when he isn’t looking at referees to give him favorable calls after getting hit.

Despite some of the difficult circumstances, the front four must do more to disrupt quarterbacks. It’s not that they are non-existent like they were last season or heavily dependent on blitzing like they were with Raheem Morris in 2020. Arnold Ebiketie made a major difference against Cleveland with three hits and three hurries. Ta’Quon Graham is showing flashes as an interior rusher. There are encouraging signs from Lorenzo Carter as well. That said, it’s not been enough for a unit that is still being carried often by the greatness of Grady Jarrett.

According to Pro Football Focus, the only defensive lineman in double-figures for sacks, hits, and hurries combined outside of Jarrett is Carter. They are going to need more across the board, from edge rushers to interior linemen. The lack of proven talent inside is definitely an issue. It’s still perplexing how the Falcons haven’t signed or traded for a proven starting defensive tackle. The coaching staff seems set on developing young talent and putting them in positions to succeed. Facing two below-average offensive lines and two quarterbacks who tend to take sacks, it’s time for this unit to start wrecking pockets and give Jarrett some much-needed assistance.

Maintaining discipline while being more aggressive

One of the most apparent things from watching Dean Pees’ defense is how the unit is positioned specifically to not allow plays to get behind them. That was a significant reason why the Falcons became the first team in 25 years not to allow a play of 40 yards or more all season in 2021. Unfortunately for them, the preferred coverage alignments usually give opposing offenses plenty of space to gain yards underneath. Brady didn’t hesitate to throw to an array of running backs and tight ends to pick up easy completions and first downs.

Pees started using tight coverage alignments and had defenders across the middle of the field in the second half. The adjustments were too little, too late last week. They can’t allow Jimmy Garoppolo and Joe Burrow to get comfortable checking it down underneath and gaining eight to ten yards an attempt. Garoppolo is normally looking to make the safe throw and not push the ball downfield. Burrow has started to check it down more, as defenses are having more success playing two high coverages against him to prevent explosive plays.

Linebackers can’t continuously be dropping eight to ten yards back into coverage. There have been too many times when Rashaan Evans and Mykal Walker were put in those precarious positions. How can the linebackers make plays when they have dropped so deep and make tackles around the first down marker? Pees needs to be more adaptable and creative with his coverages, especially if what he’s rolling out early is giving quarterbacks too many high-percentage looks.

While Evans and Walker have endured their share of mental errors, the defense has generally done a solid job of limiting big plays downfield. Their ability to stop plays in front of them will be the key against the likes of Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Jamaar Chase, and Tee Higgins. Although the tackling needs to be better across the entire defense, the personnel must be positionally set to make key stops and not allow acres of space to these playmakers. Adjustments such as playing Richie Grant closer to the line of scrimmage could be greatly beneficial.

A young defense must be organized and disciplined, but they can’t be stagnant either. Pees has to do more to bring the best out of them and cut out the easy chunk plays underneath.