Managing expectations for a team in rebuild mode yet somehow finding themselves in a divisional battle is a complex thing to monitor and digest weekly. The Falcons were never built to be a playoff team in 2022. They were in the process of assembling pieces to build a foundation for future success. That is still the case, despite the unexpected fortune of playing in the worst division in football.
Arthur Smith’s team has done plenty to insert themselves at the top of the NFC South in October. They built a strong-minded, downhill running identity with a young defense making timely plays to do just enough to get stops. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated since their most impressive win of the season against San Francisco. If Carolina didn’t beat themselves in multiple ways, they currently would be on a four-game losing streak.
The lack of talent in several positional areas was always going to hinder their progress, especially when injuries began to mount on both sides of the ball. What shouldn’t derail their improvement is questionable personnel usage and decision-making, as well as a lack of urgency. These failures have contributed to the recent losing streak.
It’s time to assess what has gone wrong and how they need to learn from these stern lessons, both to stay competitive in the moment and to get much better in the future.
Failing to bring in a proven defensive tackle to add solidity
For a team that firmly believes they are in a playoff race, it’s shocking how the organization wasn’t proactive in adding a capable interior presence. The decision to cut Anthony Rush should have prompted them to make a move to boost the inside of the defensive line. Instead, they opted to use a rotation of players that have never played extended snaps in their respective careers or didn’t enter the league with much of a pedigree.
A combination of Abdullah Anderson, Jalen Dalton, and Timmy Horne is simply not good enough to make up an interior rotation, even if they’ve had their moments. As extraordinary as Grady Jarrett is, he can’t be expected to elevate everyone around him. The second-most tenured Falcon on the roster needs more support, not more pressure to be a one-man army. Opposing teams have enjoyed plenty of success accelerating into open running lanes against them. Running backs have been able to run forward, knowing their offensive line is going to win in the trenches and get a strong push that gives them open space to work with.
Not every hole on the roster can be addressed in the off-season. It’s understandable why they didn’t make a major move to bring in a defensive tackle, with the cap costs and draft choices that might have cost. That said, an organization's job is to put their team in a position to be competitive, especially after deciding to abruptly cut a starter during the season. They failed to do that, and in combination with some very shaky linebacker play of late, it left them gashed on the ground in multiple games against Carolina.
It’s likely only going to get worse in upcoming matchups against Chicago and Washington. Not signing or trading for a defensive lineman was a real error, one that has left the Falcons without the kind of stout rotation up front they need to keep teams from running all over them.
Holding off on making the necessary switch to Desmond Ridder
What more does the coaching staff need to recognize Marcus Mariota is limiting the offense’s growth? As tremendous as he played against the 49ers, it’s been downhill ever since then. The performance against Cincinnati was atrocious. His rollercoaster showing in a ridiculous win over Carolina had more lows than highs. There were wasted opportunities against the Chargers before an abysmal game against the Panthers four days later. For every nice pass, such as the one he threw to Drake London for a touchdown last Thursday night, he makes multiple errors with his maddeningly inconsistent ball placement and inability to process coverages.
Ridder shined in the preseason with his quick release, accuracy, and ability to process the field. That is what made the thought of him being the opening day starter become a legitimate conversation among the fanbase, even if the team clearly didn’t consider it. Seeing the coaching staff watch Mariota consistently struggle to handle the basic aspects of being a starting quarterback while having a promising rookie on the bench is difficult to digest when having a young team building for the future. For all the real trust in Mariota to operate the offense, this team is currently struggling in part because of the limitations of its quarterback.
Kyle Pitts isn’t making the strides a player of his caliber should be making in his second year. As The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz pointed out, Mariota’s completion percentage is only 46 percent when targeting Pitts. That is an appalling number for someone who is supposed to be the best player on your offense. It’s hard to see that number increasing when Mariota is overthrowing Pitts on wide-open crossers that should be routine completions going for 30 yards like he did last Thursday night. The lack of urgency to see what Ridder offers is disappointing for a coaching staff that is viewed as forward-thinking.
Going with the wrong starter at cornerback for too long
While the coaching staff eventually inserted Rashad Fenton into the starting lineup last Thursday night, it doesn’t justify them keeping a player they waived in the summer in the starting lineup over two capable cornerbacks currently on the roster. Armstrong played 205 snaps in three games against the Bengals, Panthers, and Chargers. A.J. Terrell’s hamstring injury forced Armstrong into a precarious position covering Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. It predictably went as badly as everyone anticipated. There is nothing the coaching staff could have done there except throw Armstrong into the fire and watch him battle, which he did. What they did next is the issue.
With Dee Alford healthy after missing the one-sided defeat to Cincinnati, he should have been allowed to play an extended role on the outside. Alford has been a pleasant surprise as he continues his remarkable journey from CFL star to NFL contributor. They also have Mike Ford on the roster, who is physical and battle-tested enough to compete on the outside. Both players were overlooked. Armstrong played essentially every snap against the Panthers and Chargers. In both games, he allowed more than 75 yards and was culpable for several big plays.
According to Pro Football Focus, Armstrong allowed nine completions on ten targets for 87 yards against the Chargers. Josh Palmer repeatedly got the best of him, including on a game-sealing 22-yard completion. There was no disruption at the line of scrimmage. There wasn’t much from a coverage standpoint that made you think Armstrong could compete with a solid NFL wide receiver. Why the coaching staff decided to start—and have play practically every snap—a cornerback released in the summer over Alford and Ford was nonsensical. This isn’t really Armstrong’s fault, as he shouldn’t have been in that position to begin with, but it played a significant role in the loss to Chargers and was fortunate not to cost them in their dramatic win over Carolina.
Passing game issues go much deeper than Mariota’s deficiencies
The lack of varied personnel groupings and play designs to create structured openings has made an already anemic passing game more hopeless. It’s understandable why the formations aren’t spread out more, given how the offense is built and the current starting quarterback’s limitations. That said, Smith needs to do more to help create explosive play opportunities. This isn’t like last year when the receiving options were scarce. They have legitimate depth behind Pitts and London right now, and both of those players can be weapons.
Olamide Zaccheaus consistently makes one-to-two impressive plays a week. His sheer explosiveness and excellent hands need to be better utilized. Similar to Zaccheaus, Damiere Byrd can make big timely plays. Bryan Edwards has also produced impressive plays downfield in the past, even if he has been a non-factor this year. They have wide receivers who can make a difference, yet they are largely underutilized.
Zaccheaus can’t get more than three targets a game, even if he’s making the most of them. Byrd is starting to get more opportunities, and that’s another frustration with the coaching staff, because he should have been getting meaningful snaps from the start of the season. Edwards’ lack of playing time may have a compelling reason behind it, but from the outside, it’s frustrating to see him have no role.
Of course, all three wide receivers can do more to make a difference. At the same time, the play designs are very formulaic and easy to detect even when you’re just watching the film. Opposing defenses aren’t fooled one bit by what the Falcons are doing through the air. That needs to change to revive a lifeless passing game.