One-sided defeats were bound to happen at some point this season. It’s part of the process when teams are rebuilding. When a once-solidified secondary ends up without playing three of their top four corners against one of the most prolific offenses in the league, explosive plays are bound to be allowed. As disappointing as the Falcons’ performance was in Cincinnati, the loss wasn’t a massive setback. It’s more of a learning lesson for a young team that needs to improve in several areas across the roster.
With a Panthers matchup that starts a favorable stretch of games, the time is right to examine the biggest issues and what steps the Falcons can take to address them in a roundtable discussion. William McFadden joined me last month to start the regular season roundtable series. We have Everett Glaze joining us this month.
Without making a quarterback change, what can the Falcons do in the short term to get more production out of an anemic passing game?
Allen Strk: Improved pass protection would provide a massive boost to the passing game, but that doesn’t seem likely at the moment. Maximizing Mariota’s strengths is usually the priority when watching Arthur Smith’s game plan every week. From getting him on the move off bootlegs to utilizing different play action designs, the coaching staff knows how to bring the best out of him. It’s now a matter of being prepared to make adjustments when the game script doesn’t initially go to plan.
That’s where more screens and using quick game would be beneficial. Putting Kyle Pitts and Drake London alongside each other across the field rather than simply in the red zone has to generate more big play potential. Cordarrelle Patterson’s imminent return adds more options to create high-percentage looks. Still, Mariota’s limitations are evident. It’s on the coaching staff to be more proactive in devising a competent passing game until they make the switch at quarterback.
Everett Glaze: Most of us know who Mariota is as an overall player, and so does Coach Smith. That being stated, there aren’t very many options Coach Smith can consider in regards to changes he can make. For me, he has to stay the course as it is currently.
Asking Mariota to do something he clearly isn’t comfortable doing will only make this offense more stagnant as a whole Lots of RPOs, quick reads on short to intermediate routes when they’re there, and running the rock are simply Coach Smith’s best shots of keeping this offense going with Mariota at the helm.
William McFadden: The short of it: Call more pass plays. Atlanta is tied for the second-fewest pass attempts this season at 150 through seven games. Tennessee, who they are tied with, has only played six games. The Falcons have been so effective running the football that they’ve managed to be efficient in the passing game with limited attempts, which protects the offensive line.
They’ve yet to show the ability to maintain that efficiency with increased volume, however, so games like Sunday are a tough spot for this team to be in. The talent is there, but more opportunities and more options out in the route are needed.
Given the barrage of injuries in the secondary, should Dean Pees look to use different fronts and dial up more blitzes?
Allen Strk: While the upcoming matchups present favorable blitzing opportunities against sluggish offenses, the Falcons have to start blitzing more out of necessity. They aren’t generating anywhere near enough pressure with a four-man rush. The interior line doesn’t have enough depth. The new additions can’t win individual matchups consistently enough. According to Pro Football Focus, Joe Burrow was only pressured on nine of 45 dropbacks.
Some of it can be attributed to the secondary having three-stringers at cornerback. That doesn’t eradicate the fact that this front four didn’t do enough against a below-average Cincinnati offensive line. Two of the three sacks, from Lorenzo Carter and Deangelo Malone, came from blitzing. Utilizing varied fronts and blitzes is the best approach going forward to generate pressure and reduce the dependence on Grady Jarrett being a one-man army.
Everett Glaze: Dean Pees has shown that he’s pretty selective in regards to when he’ll be aggressive in games. Given that the back end is starting to get decimated with injuries, he’ll likely get a bit more aggressive to help out, and he should be based on who the Falcons play each week.
To me, it’s going to be on a week-by-week basis, but he can’t allow his thin and very young secondary to be hung out to dry if no moves are made via trade or free agency to bring any additional help in.
William McFadden: I don’t think you’ll see a sudden flip to blitzing more frequently, but I do think a greater variety of fronts is a possibility. With the lack of players in the secondary, we might see the team go slightly heavier in their personal and rely on athletic versatility. Players like Troy Andersen, Erik Harris and Isaiah Oliver come to mind here.
On most plays I expect the Falcons to bring four rushers, but I expect where those rushers come from to vary greatly throughout the game. As far as the secondary, I do expect Atlanta to still have opportunities to match up well in man. But I think it would be wiser to rely on an aggressive zone approach.
How concerned are you by the offensive line’s recent performances in pass protection?
Allen Strk: Despite coming off their most difficult three-game stretch of the season, the offensive line has to be accountable for their woes in pass protection. Without a skill position player chipping or the play call using max protection, they struggle to protect Mariota. Per Pro Football Focus, the Falcons have allowed nine sacks, three hits, and 12 hurries in the last three games.
Considering Mariota has only thrown the ball 52 times during that stretch, this is a strong indicator of how poorly the pass protection has been. Kaleb McGary has started to regress to the infuriating sluggish right tackle that he’s been for most of his career. Jake Matthews is getting schooled at times by young edge rushers. At some point, the offensive line can’t be fully dependent on the scheme to help keep the pocket clean. They must step up in upcoming matchups against edge rushers like Brian Burns and Khalil Mack.
Everett Glaze: I’m not very concerned right now. The main reason is that the Falcons don’t have a pure pocket passer taking snaps. Misdirection, boots, waggles, and a good running game can mask many issues for an offensive line up front. Honestly, given the defensive lines they’ve played up to this point, it’s to be expected that they’re having some issues.
Dalman is still young in his first season at center, and Wilkinson is really playing his first year as an left guard when he’s spent the majority of his career on the right side of the line. Despite the fact that there should be some concerns, it’s not currently in the dire stage.
William McFadden: I think it’s part of the reason the Falcons have been hesitant to switch to a pass-heavy approach for any meaningful period. This offensive line is incredibly effective in the run game, so it’s wise to play to their strengths. They have the right combination of athleticism, strength, and smarts to execute this run scheme at a very high level.
Historically, this group has not been as successful in drop-back passing situations. Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary are prime examples of this split. They have the two highest grades from PFF in run blocking on the team, but they are near the bottom of the pack in pass blocking. When they have to throw and teams know it, this line is at a disadvantage.
Which young defensive player hasn’t quite lived up to expectations so far and needs to elevate their game?
Allen Strk: Although he is working way back from a groin injury, Mykal Walker has left a lot to be desired. After starting the season strong, his performances have drastically dipped. Between the missed tackles to poor gap discipline to blown assignments, there have been too many errors from someone that the coaching staff has shown great belief in.
Walker showed flashes in his first two seasons, particularly in coverage. His ability to read quarterbacks and show off that impressive closing speed to make plays on the ball stood out. Outside of a nice interception against the Rams and a couple of pass breakups versus the Seahawks, the third-year player hasn’t made any of those types of plays. He needs to play better in all phases of the game. If he can’t, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Troy Andersen receive more opportunities, especially when considering how well he held up against a dangerous 49ers’ offense.
Everett Glaze: It’s a difficult question simply because most of the players that have seen time are performing about as I’ve expected. If I had to choose one, I’d say DeAngelo Malone, but that isn’t his fault. He shows speed, bends off of the edge, and has proven to be a lightning rod when given the opportunity.
Plus, he’s much stronger than he seems. This is one of those instances where I’d like to see Pees give him more snaps, as it could only help them and him in the long run.
William McFadden: He’s been banged up a bit recently, but it’s Ade Ogundeji for me. And I hate to say that because I think he’s an awesome dude who works relentlessly. The production just hasn’t been there for him, and he hasn’t passed the eye test for me either.
Maybe he’s been playing with his injury for longer than we’ve known, but I thought he’d make a nice jump here in his second year. Now, I’m ready to see what Ebiketie and Malone can do with some more snaps.