The Falcons offense has been a pleasant surprise, a mild disappointment, and a story in both rugged consistency and maddening inconsistency this year. It all depends on the week you’re looking at them and what aspect of this offense you’re electing to focus on.
The long and short of it? Through 13 weeks, the Falcons have been a great team on the ground and one of the league’s most effective red zone offenses, but also a team that struggles to pass the ball generally and certainly does in between the 20s.
Let’s take a closer look.
- Attempts & completions: 279 (31st) & 184 (31st)
- Passing yards: 2,024 (31st)
- Yards per attempt: 7.4 (13th)
- Passing touchdowns: 15 (19th)
- Completion %: 61.3 (27th)
- Interceptions: 9 (17th)
The Falcons came into the year with a plan: Run the ball well, be efficient through the air, and hit on deep passes. Through the first several games they were doing the first two well and the last two occasionally, but on balance through 13 games and especially of late, the latter two have suffered while the first remains a strength.
A passing attack helmed by Marcus Mariota and featuring Drake London, Cordarrelle Patterson, Kyle Pitts, Olamide Zaccheaus, and a solid cast of supporting options figured to be interesting, and at times it definitely was. Mariota and London had a nice early rapport and red zone connection, and Zaccheaus has truly blossomed this year. Somewhat mysteriously, Patterson has been a limited factor in the passing game, however, and Pitts and Mariota’s connection was inexplicably lousy all year. Especially in recent weeks, Mariota’s on-again, off-again accuracy and some frustrating missed opportunities for receivers meant a passing game that was more active liability than anything else, particularly because Mariota’s third down woes (which we’ll get to below) too often ruined productive starts to drives.
That’s frustrating for any number of reasons, but particularly because it’s not hard to imagine what this team could’ve done with more shots at the end zone. Inside the red zone, Mariota was a wizard for the Falcons, rushing for four touchdowns and tossing 11 touchdowns against just one interception. Teams having to fear Mariota’s sharp throws in tight quarters and ability to run struggled frequently with just that, and the team’s 60% touchdown rate on red zone trips was the 10th-best mark in the league and their best percentage in four seasons.
The problem is not scoring inside the 20, then, but everything else. Where Mariota was magic in the red zone, he was too often pedestrian moving down the field, which is why so many of the numbers you see above are so underwhelming. This offense asked him to take deep shots frequently, and Mariota’s numbers of balls 20+ yards downfield are among the worst in the entire NFL. On 2nd and long and 3rd and long, Mariota completed under 60% of his passes for two touchdowns and six interceptions this season, and his troubles on third down and 10-plus yards this year (7 sacks, 2 interceptions, 5.6 yards per attempt). When the field was open and teams knew the Falcons had to throw, they quite often could not do so, and for every legitimately nice tight window throw or big gain by a receiver, there were two missed opportunities or missed throws that ground drives to a halt.
The net here is that the Falcons began the year with a truly efficient attack, but as the season wore on and defenses adjusted to Atlanta, their red zone excellence was the only bright spot in a passing game that increasingly struggled to move the ball. In some alternate universe where the Falcons hit even a handful of passes between the 20s they missed, we’re looking at a better squad and talking about how great this team has been, but sadly that’s not the universe we’re in.
That’s a big part of the reason there’s a change coming at the quarterback position. It’s unlikely Ridder will be as efficient in the red zone right away as the man he’s replacing, but the hope is that he can get this team moving downfield through the air a bit more effectively, and the end result will be a little better. We’ll soon see.
- Attempts: 418 (2nd)
- Yards: 2,066 (2nd)
- Touchdowns: 12 (8th)
- Yards per attempt: 4.9 (5th)
- Fumbles: 16 (22nd)
The Falcons simply run whenever they want to and enjoy great success doing so. They’re averaging over 4 yards per carry at every down and distance except 4th and short and 1st and longer than 10, they’re one of the most efficient and balanced attacks in football, and very few opponents have been able to come close to stopping them.
That’s a credit to the blocking—again, more on that shortly—but also the team effort that has gotten Atlanta here. Rookie Tyler Allgeier and gifted veteran Cordarrelle Patterson alone have combined for close to 1,200 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, with Marcus Mariota chipping in nearly 450 yards of his own and four scores, Caleb Huntley adding over 350 yards and a touchdown, and Avery Williams another 83 yards and a score on light work. The Falcons have been able to run with just about anybody, just about any time they want, and clearly that is Arthur Smith’s dream.
Even the fumble numbers, which stand out as below average, are heavily skewed by Mariota’s eight fumbles. No other player has more than one. This team has been very careful with the ball and has become a nightmare for opposing defenses, given that Huntley, Allgeier, and Patterson are all tough and physical runners who quite often get a head of a steam and a little room to work with. Scheme has made a huge difference here, but so has the available talent. Considering the Falcons’ backfield contains a late round rookie, a second-year undrafted free agent, a converted former wide receiver, and a converted cornerback, that’s impressive as hell.
You could nitpick if you really tried, but what’s the sense? This has been the team’s lone consistent, standout strength in 2022, after all. The Falcons may well want to add talent to this backfield—Bijan Robinson is already a popular mock draft target—but they have the pieces they need to be one of the league’s most effective rushing attacks even if they stand pat, and Ridder is fast enough to at least contribute as a runner even if he’s unlikely to be as productive as Mariota in that regard. What a welcome change all of this is.
- 13 sacks allowed
- 3.1 yards before contact average
- 27 penalties
The Falcons are about what you’d think they are: Superb at run blocking, okay-to-good at pass protection. Per Pro Football Focus, every starting offensive lineman grades out over 68 in run blocking (which is pretty good) and Kaleb McGary and Chris Lindstrom are in the 90s (which is superb). Just two starters (Jake Matthews and Chris Lindstrom) rank over 68 in pass protection, and while I hesitate to use Pro Football Focus for shorthand, that sort of checks out.
In all, PFF hangs 13 of the team’s 28 sacks on the offensive line, with three more going to Avery Williams, Kyle Pitts, and Parker Hesse and the rest the service is laying at the feet of Marcus Mariota. While I think that’s probably generous to the line, they haven’t been absymal in pass protection like they were in years past, and merely solid much of the time with some awful stretches. That feels like progress.
I don’t have to tell you that the team’s robust yards before contact average is a positive reflection on the team’s blocking, as they’ve giving backs room to work with in a way they simply didn’t a year ago (or the year before that, or the year before that, or the year before...). Arthur Smith, Dave Ragone, Dwayne Ledford and company are doing a good job coaching and scheming things up, and the line has done an impressive job of executing.
Ideally, the team sees improvement or replacement at left guard and center to lift this line further, but they’re making progress through 13 games.
Scoring & conversions
- 3rd down conversion %: 40.7% (12th)
- 4th down conversion %: 50% (18th)
- Red zone touchdown %: 60.5% (10th)
- Points per drive: 2 (15th)
- Points per game: 22.2 (16th)
The Falcons got off to a fine start in terms of scoring, but with attrition at left guard, the regression for the passing game and Mariota, the injury to Kyle Pitts, and a combination of mistakes and bad luck (think the would-be game winner against Washington that was tipped). Atlanta’s third down effectiveness and points per drive and game have been dwindling. Over the past several weeks, the team’s inability to stay on the field on third down in particular has been a major factor in their offensive struggles.
Now look at their 3rd/4th down efficiency:— Aaron Freeman (@falcfans) December 13, 2022
1. Entire year
2. Last 6 weeks pic.twitter.com/qokGfFpv9B
I touched on this above, but if you want to boil down where Mariota struggled to the point that the Falcons eventually made a change, it comes down to deep balls and third downs. On first and second downs, Mariota completing over 63% of his passes for 1,739 yards, 13 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. On third down, he completed 54.75% of his passes for 475 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. He essentially went from an average-to-above average passer on early downs to one of the worst in the NFL on third downs, and considering the Falcons often faced third and long situations in 2022, the fact that his average yards per attempt plummeted to 5.25 (versus 9.5 on first down and 6.22 on second downs) paints a stark picture.
The Falcons will be hoping a quarterback change helps change the picture here, and even modest improvement from Ridder will make a big difference for this offense, hopefully without any significant drop in the kind of early down production Mariota put up this season.
Overall, the story of this offense has been better than anticipated early and subsequently raised expectations, have fallen back to earth in recent weeks, and have still been solid enough to make this something more than just a lost season en route to bigger and better things in 2023. We’ll see where they finish the year.