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Figuring out the problems within a floundering Falcons passing game

While a quarterback change seems like an instant solution, the issues stem deeper in Arthur Smith’s impressive yet increasingly run-dependent offense.

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Atlanta Falcons v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

It’s hard to classify the Falcons’ loss in Cincinnati as a new low. As brutal as it was on both sides of the ball, the team was severely undermanned in the secondary and faced one of the top teams in the league when firing on all cylinders. All rebuilding teams are going to endure their humbling losses, no matter how ahead of schedule they may be in their process.

There was only one alarming aspect of the one-sided defeat, which nobody could have anticipated last April when Drake London was selected with the eighth overall pick.

What happened?

The Falcons have been unable to manufacture any sort of consistency in the air, despite using multiple top-ten picks on gargantuan pass-catchers, ones who are built to create mismatches and produce explosive plays. To make things more perplexing, both players in London and Kyle Pitts have proven they can perform at a high level. The inability to get both of them more involved, along with other skill position players in the passing game, ultimately comes down to the offensive structure, quarterback play, and lack of trust for the offensive line.

On 19 of Mariota’s dropbacks against Cincinnati, ten of them had them set up in max protection or one player chipping an edge rusher. There were also a few goal-line plays mixed in there as well. When it comes to pure dropback pass plays with three or more pass-catchers, only five of those plays were called. Three of those plays resulted in sacks allowed by Kaleb McGary and Jake Matthews. Marcus Mariota was the cause for the other one due to poor pocket presence.

For Arthur Smith to be so conservative against a defense that drops eight into coverage more than most teams in the league should raise serious concern about the state of where his confidence is at with the passing game. There were moments when it was only two wide receivers running routes downfield, with Parker Hesse or Tyler Allgeier chipping and then coming out of the backfield as a check-down option. It’s hard to be productive in the air while being so limited, especially when your quarterback can’t consistently make tight-window throws downfield.

They don’t have enough pass catchers running routes on certain plays. They seem over-reliant on providing both tackles with chip help and running max protection to help handle different defensive fronts. It’s understandable to run heavier formations to fit the style of being a run-first offense. When you are using it on 3rd and 13, like against Cincinnati, it becomes a reason to question how functionally the passing game is operating.

According to The Athletic, the Falcons have the second-lowest passing rate when trailing by double digits. Only the Bears throw less than them, which is somewhat understandable given the state of their receiving corps. They don’t have multiple rising stars who are capable of taking over games with their pass-catching ability. Yet here the Falcons are, as they look utterly hopeless at times throwing the ball in games against Cleveland, Tampa Bay, and Cincinnati.

Where do they go from here?

Smith shouldn’t go away from the identity he’s building in Atlanta, given that it has brought the team real success in the early going. What he might need to do is take more risks and see where the offense is with a slightly more balanced approach. Smith always preaches offensive balance, yet there hasn’t been much in recent weeks. Some games are obviously different, but given how good they are and how game-changing they can be, London and Pitts combining for 18 yards in a mostly lopsided game is inexcusable. There needs to be a greater emphasis on getting the ball in their hands, something Smith acknowledged this week.

The play calling has gone away from using them in stack formations alongside each other in recent weeks. Outside of the impressive opening drive touchdown against San Francisco, London and Pitts haven’t been used alongside each other often like they were in the first three weeks of the season. That needs to change, as both players were building solid chemistry, creating openings for each other and giving Mariota high-percentage looks. Both players are also simply too talented to be afterthoughts. They have to be making some sort of impact in every game for this offense to operate at its full potential.

Whether it’s more screens, quick passes, or even more play action, both players need to be getting targeted and put in positions to produce explosive plays. To a lesser extent, Olamide Zaccheaus should be more involved as well. Per Pro Football Focus, Mariota’s passer rating when targeting Zaccheaus is an outrageous 149.1. It’s essentially a productive pass play when Mariota manages to connect with Zaccheaus. Getting up to 4 to 6 targets rather than 2 to 4 targets per game for the resilient wide receiver could bolster an anemic aerial attack given Mariota’s evident trust in him.

What transpired against the Bengals had to leave a lasting effect on the team. They trailed for the entire game and still couldn’t test Cincinnati’s secondary outside of one coverage breakdown from Eli Apple. Although Mariota’s pocket awareness is troubling, and ball placement can be all over the place, there needs to be some alteration to the offense to give him more options to make plays with his arm.

If he can’t connect with the pass catchers after being put in more aggressive scenarios, the time is right to make a quarterback switch. It’s on the coaching staff to at least give Mariota opportunities with reduced chips and max protections and see how the offense can move the ball without being overly protective of two of the biggest offensive question marks in the quarterback and offensive line. Along the way, giving their two golden offensive pieces better opportunities to make game-changing plays will only help Mariota and the offense thrive.