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The Falcons need more from their passing attack as they chase the playoffs

Arthur Smith’s strong stance on keeping Marcus Mariota in as the starter as they pursue the NFC South title makes finding improvements paramount.

Chicago Bears v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Falcons’ offense has been one-dimensional over the years. After becoming one of the best teams in the league between 2016 and 2017, they began to crumble in 2018 due to poor drafts, bad free-agent additions, and overvaluing marginal players that weren’t good enough to contribute. As these things transpired, the offense went from being filled with dynamic talent across the board to become a one-dimensional aerial attack overly dependent on the wide receivers.

The offensive play drastically declined. The playcalling became predictable and uninspiring. Multiple serious injuries to Devonta Freeman, along with Tevin Coleman never evolving into a consistently impactful back, made the running game largely ineffective. The offensive line became a major liability.

Times have drastically changed from 2018-2020, yet the Falcons’ offense remains the same in one significant aspect. They are a one-dimensional, limited unit that struggles to produce when defenses shut down what their primary strength is. It’s just that the strength is no longer the same as it was a few years ago.

The Falcons’ running game has been one of the biggest revelations this season. From their unique collection of running backs to Arthur Smith’s personnel groupings to Kaleb McGary’s impressive improvement as a run blocker, they have taken over games on the ground and built a blueprint for success. Unfortunately, they don’t have a capable consistent backup plan when defenses break open gaps and get into the backfield.

Lost hopes in the air

The Falcons’ passing game has been wretched for most of the season. As gutsy and impressive Marcus Mariota has been at turning wrecked plays into highlight-reel gains, his inability to make consistent throws and operate under pressure in the pocket often outweighs those positives.

Mariota doesn’t read the field particularly well. His ball placement has severely hindered the offense’s progression. Look no further than what has transpired with Kyle Pitts. According to SportsLine, Pitts has the highest off-target rate out of all pass-catchers in the league. An inability to get the ball to the best skill position player on the team is the epitome of why the Falcons’ passing game is dysfunctional.

Mariota’s poor play since his memorable performance against San Francisco would justify being benched, but it does not appear that’s going to happen here and now. Smith has been insistent that Mariota remains the best player under center to give the Falcons the best chance to win. No matter how limited the passing game is because of his flaws, the offense continues to march forward as a unit that is equal parts entertaining and infuriating.

With the team still pushing Tampa Bay at the top of the division and no quarterback change incoming, the team still has to find a solution to inject life into a languishing passing game.

Using strengths to supplement much-needed progress

The success of the running game is the best possible enhancement for the passing game. While the ground game’s efficiency doesn’t influence play-action success, it can influence how defenses are lining up. Forcing them to put more bodies in the box creates space on the back end. Considering how much the coaching staff likes using run-pass options, the run game’s performance can get linebackers and safeties out of position. It will force them to play inside the box, daring Mariota to make throws to his wide receiver.

While Mariota hasn’t necessarily punished defenses often for stacking the box, it’s not like he is incapable of making intermediate throws across the middle of the field. His early-season rapport with Drake London showcased that. Although that duo haven’t been as efficient in recent weeks, there is going to be a greater reliance on London going forward. Pitts’ potentially potential season-ending injury makes London the certified number-one pass-catching option. London is more than capable of taking the role. It simply comes down to receiving enough opportunities to be that caliber of player.

What makes the passing game’s abysmal production further frustrating is that the receiving corps is legitimately better than last season. Olamide Zaccheaus has made strides as a player who can make difficult contested catches and stretch defenses vertically. Damiere Byrd is the big-play receiver that the Falcons severely lacked last season following Calvin Ridley’s decision to take time away from the sport, and one with a good rapport with Mariota. They have actual receiving options compared to last year, when the team sometimes struggled to field three wide receivers, and they’ve found some success going to MyCole Pruitt, Tyler Allgeier, and other non-receiver options.

The time has to be now

The reality is the passing game has the capability to be better. It hasn’t happened consistently owing to Mariota’s below-average accuracy and questionable decision-making, and the line’s inability to hold up in pass protection against dangerous front fours both compounds those problems and sometimes makes it impossible for Mariota to operate at all. For all these personnel shortcomings, there is enough talent to be more productive under an improving coaching staff accustomed to maximizing talent under strenuous circumstances.

A prolific passing game isn’t going to happen in 2022. What can transpire is the progress of London, with a mixture of big plays from the supporting cast based on the coaching staff’s excellence at devising play-action concepts to scheme open players. Other possibilities, such as getting Cordarrelle Patterson more involved as a receiver and seeing if KhaDarel Hodge can be utilized in bunch sets to replace Pitts in certain formations, could make a difference in this playoff push. Even modest gains in pass protection and Mariota’s consistency could create more impressive results.

It won’t be pretty. There are going to be head-shaking moments. That’s the cost of being in a rebuilding stage with a quarterback in perhaps his last opportunity to serve as the clear-cut starter of an NFL team. Those limitations don’t stop the possibility of growth and development through the air from a team exceeding expectations for the second consecutive season.