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Arthur Smith’s vision is beginning to come to life

After arguably the most important win of his young coaching career, the pieces are starting to align for the Falcons’ offensive architect.

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Cleveland Browns v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Instilling belief in your players is one of the biggest priorities for a young head coach. If the players are behind your overall message and schematic philosophy, there is endless room for growth. For all the stumbles and one-sided defeats last season, one thing was for certain with the Falcons: The players believed in Arthur Smith.

They knew he was looking to get them to grow and put them in positions to flourish. Even when Smith made a poor decision to go for it on fourth down or failed to manage the clock properly, or called a highly questionable play, everyone played hard and remained committed to his methods. Building that unity within a locker room in rigorous circumstances speaks volumes about the type of coach Smith is.

Despite a rare outburst at a postgame press conference following an excruciating opening day defeat to New Orleans, Smith is proving to be the leader the Falcons need him to be, along with being the forward-thinking, creative play-caller they envisioned would take the offense to great heights. Smith is doing that by making them one of the more prolific units in the league.

Only five teams have produced more explosive big plays than them after four weeks of action. Unlike units such as Cleveland and Chicago, the Falcons are creating big plays at a balanced rate on the ground and through the air. Smith is using play action and max protection to his advantage in providing Marcus Mariota more high-percentage looks. He is also working relentlessly to help give the Falcons a legitimate ground game for the first time since 2017. That lethal running game was on full display in a memorable win over Cleveland.

Making in-game adjustments to win and build a lasting identity

Running for over 200 yards as a team is an extraordinary feat regardless of what takes place in the game. For that to be accomplished despite having the ball for barely over 24 minutes is a testament to how dominant the Falcons were on the ground. The Browns had over ten minutes of possession with their sensational running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, yet failed to win and gain more rushing yards. That’s how productive the Falcons were on the ground.

They made it evident from the start of the season against New Orleans. As long as the game remains competitive, Smith is going to look to run the ball 30+ times. It already worked to great effect in two games this season, including a much-needed win over Seattle.

The circumstances were more difficult this time around with Cordarrelle Patterson essentially sidelined for most of the second half due to a lingering knee issue, which ultimately put him on short-term injured reserve. With no Patterson or Damien Williams, they had to rely on their core of inexperienced running backs.

Promising rookie Tyler Allgeier, preseason workhorse Caleb Huntley, and converted back Avery Williams had to save the languishing offense against Cleveland. After three consecutive three-and-out drives where Smith called two running plays in total, alterations were necessary.

Mariota was erratic with his ball placement, jittery in the pocket, and struggled to read Cleveland’s coverage looks. An interception to Denzel Ward on the next drive gave Smith no other alternative but to put the game on his untested backs and enigmatic offensive line. That was the moment everything changed.

While mostly using his traditional zone read concepts, Smith added some variance with his run calls. Getting his athletic offensive line on the move while running in 22 personnel with Pitts lined up to the outside helped them overwhelm an outmanned Browns front seven.

Look no further than Drew Dalman showing impressive agility and technique to execute the pull to create space for Avery Williams to gain 21 yards. It was an astute touch on Smith’s part to put his most explosive back on the field to take the handoff to maximize the unique play’s potential.

As the game wore on, it became apparent the Falcons had the most success running towards the right side. Dalman had his best game as a pro. Kaleb McGary continues to make drastic strides as an overall blocker. The player who set the tone and made the biggest difference was potential future All-Pro right guard Chris Lindstrom.

The former first-round pick made outstanding blocks all game, from sealing off nose tackles to making pulls to the outside to clear space on outside runs. There were also moments where he straight-up mauled defenders at the second level. Linebacker Sione Takitaki got annihilated by Lindstrom on one of many runs that went for a first down in the second half.

The head coach isn’t always going to have all the answers. Sometimes, it will take the coaching staff he assembled to supply guidance on what adjustments to make and which players should be on the field more often. Smith stated running backs coach Michael Pitre suggested giving Huntley an extended opportunity.

That decision made the in-game adjustments come to full fruition as Huntley barreled through defenders, cut between the tackles, and gained yards after contact on what felt like every other carry. His emergence provided the spark for the offense to run and execute an efficient game plan to put together a remarkable performance that could prove to be the launching pad the Falcons needed going forward as a physical, resilient team.

The right players with the right mentality

Although Pitre deserves enormous praise for pushing to get Huntley much-needed carries, Smith should receive his dose as well for deciding to keep Huntley. The undrafted running back wasn’t mentioned in the general Falcons’ running back conversations going into the season.

Unlike the public, the coaching staff believed he could be a contributor to the roster. Bringing him onto the roster for this game with Patterson banged up proved to be a brilliant decision as Huntley bounced off defenders like a prime Jason Snelling and consistently produced steady gains.

The mid-round selections of Dalman and Allgeier were equally as influential in the comeback win. Smith made it clear Allgeier was the running back the organization wanted as the draft went on. His sensational performance in the Independence Bowl last year made him the ideal fit for how Smith wanted to shape the running game.

Watching Allgeier let blocks develop, burst into lanes, and carry defenders with him downfield was something to behold. It was the breakout performance that should propel him to take on an expanded role, especially with Patterson sidelined for the next month.

A successful running game goes beyond the running backs and offensive line. It takes a real collaborative effort to take over a game on the ground. That was apparent when watching Smith’s offenses in Tennessee wear defenses down and dictate the flow of the game. The way Smith shapes different formations using a mixture of shifts and motions makes the offense so difficult to defend.

It makes a player like Parker Hesse so valuable when you can line him up in different areas to make blocks to create lanes. Keith Smith has become more valuable as well in Smith’s offense. Both players are being inserted into positions that best suit their capabilities as willing, hardnosed blockers.

The way the playmakers on the outside are fully embracing the importance of run blocking made a difference against Cleveland. Drake London had a tremendous crackback block on Alex Wright to help Patterson earn a 12-yard gain. Kyle Pitts made multiple solid blocks on the outside. Despite being likely frustrated by the lack of opportunities in the passing game, both players made their mark elsewhere. Being capable blockers is something that is engrained into pass-catchers in Smith’s offense.

Olamide Zaccheaus spoke to me in August about the necessity of being able to block to play in Smith’s offense. After Sunday’s win, Pitts told ESPN’s Michael Rothstein about how he takes pride in being able to block effectively. It takes consistent drilling and communication to make sure receivers know their duty and the importance of handling their blocking responsibilities. For these young players to embrace blocking and help contribute to a 202-yard rushing performance shows the power of Smith’s influence across the locker room.

Smith can’t be solely credited for the shrewd decisions on the offensive side of the ball. Dee Alford’s game-sealing interception had to be extra special for Smith and Terry Fontenot. Alford was signed three days after the 2021 season ended for the Falcons. The organization opted to take a chance on two players from the CFL in Alford and Brayden Lenius. Alford has seized every opportunity to prove himself since being signed to the point where he earned his place as a valuable contributor.

For him to rise up into the air and secure the victory was the cherry on top in the dramatic victory. Alford is always strategizing how to get better. Adding young talent with a strong work ethic, powerful ambition, and desire to learn is one of the primary aspects behind the team’s overall improvement and unified culture.

Daunting tasks and bigger decisions to be made ahead on a bright path

As encouraging and exciting as the last two performances have been, the Falcons face two upcoming tall orders. The opportunity to battle two fearsome defenses in Tampa Bay and San Francisco will be an excellent test to see where Smith stands going against two of the top defensive minds in the league. Todd Bowles and DeMeco Ryans won’t hesitate to bring frequent pressure with their ultra-athletic linebackers and savvy front fours. How Smith counters it with play action and max protection will be fascinating to observe.

What we do know is the Falcons’ offense is far from being a finished product. It’s a foregone conclusion that Desmond Ridder will be stepping onto the field sooner rather than later. His arm, quick decision-making, and poise in the pocket should open things up in the passing game, particularly for Pitts, who Smith needs to do a better job of getting in positions to make big plays. How long Smith waits to make the decision at quarterback could determine if this team will seriously be competitive into January or just feisty and fun.

For the first time in years, the Falcons are legitimately exciting. They have a roster battling hard on every snap and are capable of making timely plays on both sides of the ball. Regardless of the personnel limitations, they play with high intensity and never quit attitude. It resembles their head coach’s journey, who worked his way to greater heights in six different positions for nearly a decade in Tennessee.

Smith’s determination and persistence to become a head coach has rubbed off on players who were overlooked, undrafted, or not utilized properly on their previous teams. The offense comes prepared with a strategy to outwork and outmaneuver defenses. That’s one of the biggest things you can ask for a team with minimal expectations.

The biggest takeaway from the first part of the season is Smith’s substantial growth as a coach. He’s more adaptable than ever before. He understands his team and this game better than ever before. He knows how to maximize his offense more than ever before. No matter the obstacles, the Falcons are going to come up with a plan to beat teams and be ruthless with it. It won’t always work, but it’s already working more often.

Sometimes, it will involve slicing up defenses with play action. Sometimes, it will be (in the glorious words of Smith) running the piss out of the football. Smith’s vision may take some time to reach its final form, but his methods and decisions are starting to become something you must take seriously.