There are positive aspects when you’re a rebuilding team losing close games. It shows the competitive spirit they have, despite not possessing enough top talent to consistently win games in the league. It does represent them making enough plays on both sides of the ball to gain the confidence they can win games. It also looks great in the draft order when it comes to adding another highly-regarded prospect to address a glaring need on the roster, allowing you to upgrade talent while staying competitive.
For all those positives, there is still plenty of frustration behind the Falcons’ recent defeats. It’s bad enough to lose four consecutive games. To fall short in four straight one-score games leaves even more questions to be answered in the long haul. Will the team be able to make critical plays in the fourth quarter? Why is the team frequently starting games slow and falling behind? How does the least-penalized team in the league have startling moments of reckless play when it’s most unwelcome?
The Falcons are 4-8 in one-score games this season. That record wouldn’t be as bad if they didn’t lose to teams starting mainly backup-caliber quarterbacks. It can be argued that the Falcons are in a similar state at the quarterback position this season. That is a valid critique, yet at some point, teams have to learn from their failures and execute better.
It starts with the coaching staff, led by Arthur Smith. The losses will always fall on the head coach when a franchise quarterback isn’t there taking the brunt of the backlash. Smith is facing it now, realizing that constant close-game losses aren’t acceptable. He will need to figure out how to address these game-altering woes.
Stumbling inside the red area
One of the most exciting aspects of the Falcons hiring Smith was how lethal the Titans were in the red zone in 2019 and 2020. They ranked first and second in those respective seasons. The success can certainly be attributed to Derrick Henry being such a dominant force, but Smith’s incisive playcalling can’t be discounted. His knack for getting skill position players open by design while utilizing Ryan Tannehill on read-option plays produced plenty of touchdowns during his memorable run in Tennesee.
That success rate hasn’t transferred over to sustainable red zone efficiency in Atlanta. After a strong start to the season, the impressive production has faded as the Falcons have become a below-average offense in the red zone. They rank 23rd in touchdown efficiency and 28th in scoring efficiency. That is unacceptable for a team that has established a productive running game and physical style of play. To go from being in the top ten in both categories to completely falling off has to be alarming for the coaching staff.
Look no further than the previous game against Baltimore. While poor execution must be mentioned from Parker Hesse’s illegal shift to the offensive line not getting any push near the goal line, it was disappointing how the coaching staff played into the opposition’s cards. They know how athletic and explosive the Ravens’ defense is. The thought process of calling outside runs in a critical situation was asking for trouble. They paid the price repeatedly by going one for four on fourth down and failing to score a single touchdown in four red zone appearances.
The lack of of production in those scenarios must be infuriating for a team that started moving the ball well in the second half. Tyler Allegier’s destructive power, Drake London’s stunning athleticism, Cordarrelle Patterson’s versatility, and Desmond Ridder’s game intelligence could have made the difference in those make-or-break situations and scoring opportunities. A few plays made here and there could have made the difference against Washington, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans to prevent this losing streak.
As Grady Jarrett said best on Christmas Eve, it’s the same shit, different year with this team. Smith was supposed to change the past Falcons’ misfortunes, yet the most respected player on the team is visibly fed up with how the win/loss results haven’t changed with a new regime. It goes beyond not executing in the fourth quarter. Slow starts have been detrimental as well.
Falling behind early leads to further regrets
In the past three games, the Falcons have scored a combined 13 points in the first half. To make an embarrassing stat total even worse, none of those points were scored in the first quarter. When assessing these close losses, every aspect of the game needs to be examined on why they are falling short. Smith wants to get an extended look at Ridder, which has led to more attempts and aggressive play-calling. At the same time, it shouldn’t result in putting the entire team at a disadvantage.
The unwillingness to run at times on early downs has led to numerous third and long situations. Ridder has looked overwhelmed attempting to make downfield throws to a limited receiving corps and defenses that don’t hesitate when it comes to blitzing. This is where Smith needs to adjust and devise a game plan capable of being productive. It can’t wait until the second half when he finally decides to lean on the running game and attempt to pound defenses into submission.
Why not be committed to the run from the start and give Ridder more flexibility to operate in? Let him utilize play-action and read option designs on second or third and short. It’s been some time since the Falcons actually played with a lead. Considering the pressure that comes with being a rookie quarterback, particularly when put in difficult situations on the road against good defenses near the end of the season, the focus should be on doing everything possible to start the game off strong and put him in high-leverage situations.
Scoring a touchdown in the first half, let alone the first quarter, could do the team wonders. As much as Jaylinn Hawkins wants to say how you finish is everything, it’s essential to start games out ready to play and put the opposition at an immediate disadvantage.
Smith was always going to need time to rehabilitate a team in total disarray from a roster and financial standpoint. Despite surprisingly impressive early starts in 2020 and 2021, the team has faded considerably over the final two months in both seasons. A lack of overall talent will be the primary cause for it, but Smith knows taking accountability comes with being a head coach. Questionable play calling, personnel usage, situational management, and game awareness will always be critiqued when a team loses games. It’s something that can be ultimately improved upon, which will lead to better results for the team even after they upgrade the talent level.
There is no reason for Smith to be placed on the hot seat going into 2023. Being in the midst of a massive rebuild warrants time. With an offseason approaching filled with opportunities to bolster the roster, the hope is better personnel will give the Falcons more firepower on both sides of the ball to win games consistently against average to above-average opposition.
Smith must still improve his skills and approach as a head coach, because these close losses aren’t flukey. The Falcons simply didn’t play well enough in four quarters to win those games. Putting them in better positions to come out firing and finish games with authority is what will be needed to win more games. Another repeat of 2022 will lead to serious questions about Smith’s capabilities as a head coach in 2023, underscoring the need for him to take another step alongside his roster.