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Atlanta’s turning back the clock and turning up the creativity on offense in 2022

In a year where passing has been slowing, Atlanta’s found a formula for strong play.

Atlanta Falcons v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

If you asked anyone outside of their respective fanbases—national analysts, skeptical local beat writers, people in line at the grocery store—you would have been told the Falcons and Giants were going to be two of the worst teams in the NFL in 2022. They might have pegged their combined record at this point in the season as something like 3-9, or perhaps if you were optimistic, 5-7. They were destined to be some of the NFL’s lesser lights, surely.

Obviously, that hasn’t been the case. At 5-1, the Giants are the NFL’s biggest surprise, a team winning in all sorts of creative and frankly delightful ways, squeezing every last ounce out of their talent and maximizing skillsets with great coaching, unique formations, and more wrinkles than an elderly mole rat.

In a fascinating, really well done article by Tony Del Genio at Big Blue View, he took a closer look at the sorry state of NFL offenses in 2022 and how the Giants in particular have bucked the trend. It’s a must-read if you’re looking for insights into why so many games have been so ugly this year, but it also contains more than a few interesting nuggets about our Atlanta Falcons, who are also defying expectations by looking remarkably solid in 2022.

Those Falcons have been competitive in every game, sit at .500, and are finding ways to succeed on offense that are distinctly throwback (running the ball effectively, minimizing passing attempts, looking downfield when they do) with creative twists of their own. Their willingness and ability to pound the rock against any defense has driven a lot of their success, but why is it working? The answer has a lot to do with Arthur Smith’s creativity, this team’s preferred identity, and how those are fitting well with the larger leaguewide trends we’re seeing in 2022.

What the Falcons are doing well

Essentially, they’re making the most of what they have, and they’re doing so in a very Arthur Smith sort of way.

As Del Genio wrote, scoring is down this year, as it’s at the lowest level since 2017. With Thursday Night’s scoring explosion between the Saints and Cardinals, it bumped up by .2 points, putting it just ahead of 2017. Before that, as Pro Football Reference can attest, the scoring this year was at its lowest level since 2009.

The yards per play average has not changed significantly in close to two decades, but passing yardage is beginning to tick downward significantly, as they’re at their lowest level since 2017 and have declined two straight years. That 2017 season was the outlier in many ways—you’ll recall the Falcons’ defense did really well that year—as the league hadn’t seen under 229 passing yards per game in any season since 2010 before last year. The trend lines are more pointed and seemingly less random the past two years, however. There seems to be a depression in passing numbers that, as Del Genio wrote, is leading to a reduction in scoring and even closer margins of victory.

The shift away from high-flying, high-volume passing attacks, either intentionally or out of necessity, is something that’s leading to a bit of a rushing renaissance leaguewide. As JP Acosta wrote at SB Nation, defenses have finally caught up to some of the league’s most wildly successful offensive trends after years of being behind owing to a combination of stellar offensive innovation and rule changes that made it harder to, well, play defense. That’s forcing a rapid change in the way offenses operate if they want to operate effectively,

Despite the overarching lack of downfield passing game this year (teams are throwing the ball shorter due to 2-high structures), the diverse run game has begun to come back. It’s all a reminder of how cyclical football is. Offenses and defenses are constantly trying to one up each other, sitting in on each others’ clinics to gain any advantage possible. The advantage we’re seeing right now could potentially just be a temporary thing, or it could be the next evolution of the sport.

The Falcons seem built to thrive in such an environment. They’ve played every game except their borderline blowout win against the 49ers close, and they’ve As Charles McDonald wrote at Yahoo! Sports yesterday, Atlanta’s one of the most run-heavy teams in the league, and they’re also lining up in ways that create a bit of uncertainty as to their intentions and maximizing what Marcus Mariota does well. They’ve been able to retain a passing attack that can and does work downfield—Mariota is averaging a full three intended air yards more per attempt than he did in his last season with Arthur Smith in 2019, and he’s third in the NFL in that metric—owing to the strength of the run and their commitment to chaos.

How they’re getting this done is different from almost every other team in the league. According to Next Gen Stats, the Falcons are running pistol formations at the highest rate in the NFL at 37%, lead the league in two-back sets at 28% and are running the most condensed formations in the league with an average formation width of 21.4 yards. For a team that appears to be singularly focused in how they want to move the ball, the Falcons need to give themselves advantages to achieve that goal.

It’s fair to say Smith’s offense has some of the hallmarks of his Tennessee days—an emphasis on play action and read options to maximize a mobile quarterback, a ground game that is used just as frequently as the aerial assault, an emphasis on shotgun and pistol looks—and that’s helping to drive success for this team’s personnel. It’s clear that the Falcons are not really all that close to being as good as the 2019 and 2020 Titans—they’ve averaging a full yard less per play, the passing game isn’t as sharp, and the talent isn’t quite there yet—but they’re far better than most expected them to be. The outline of the kind of explosive, defense-ruining offense that Smith enjoyed in Tennessee is definitely there.

The potential for mistakes rises when you’re running an offense The fumbles and penalties that marred the early weeks of the season were frustrating, but Atlanta’s been relatively disciplined and careful with the ball in recent weeks, which has enabled them to pull together long, time-consuming, and frankly exhausting drives (at least for the opposing defense) that have ended in scores. If they can keep that up, there’s no particular reason to think the ground game will become less effective as the weeks roll on. That’s especially true when you consider the Falcons have been faring exceptionally well even with injuries piling up at running back, as Cordarrelle Patterson, Caleb Huntley, and Tyler Allgeier are all in the top 25 in the league for average yards after contact. The line, the scheme, the quarterback, and the personnel at running back have all aligned in an unexpectedly effective way.

There’s also no reason to think, even with a massive offseason spending spree potentially on the way, that the Falcons will switch things up dramatically in the seasons ahead on offense. That will be true whether Mariota, Desmond Ridder, or another quarterback to be determined under center, and it will be true The league may be heading toward a greater emphasis on the run and stingier pass defense or it may not, but Atlanta has an effective identity that will make them one of the league’s most difficult matchups regardless. The fact that the NFL is trending in such a way as to make Atlanta’s—and, to bring this thing full circle, teams like the Giants’—strengths shine even brighter is a happy accident, indeed.