It’s difficult to gauge a first-year head coach’s performance when taking over a rebuilding team, as I’ve written in the past. Implementing a new philosophy for a group severely lacking in talent was always going to be challenging. Arthur Smith found out the hard way when he was not able to establish much of a running game, produce easy chunk plays, and score consistently in the red zone. It was a weekly battle where Matt Ryan had to play at an exceptional level for them to have a chance to win.
That no longer is an option following Ryan’s departure to Indianapolis. Smith faces the task of moving forward with a new quarterback while injecting new talent—particularly massive wide receivers—into the offense. It’s a daunting task for a team that still could use upgrades everywhere, but everyone knows the former Tennessee offensive coordinator will be given patience after taking on such a difficult job. There were enough encouraging signs from last season to be encouraged with who Smith is as a play-caller. Where he’s at as a head coach is a whole different discussion, to say the least.
Smith had his share of miscues as a play-caller. There were baffling moments, especially in the red zone and late-game situations. The hesitancy didn’t help matters either when trying to secure a win or address the offensive line’s glaring issues. That can’t happen this season for a head coach who can’t stand any thought of the Falcons’ rebuilding. Here are five of the main things Smith needs to pinpoint and address in the 2022 season.
Improving red zone efficiency
The Falcons have been one of the most inefficient teams in the red zone since 2019. It’s not surprising, considering the state of those offensive lines and Dirk Koetter’s ineptitude. As they were floundering and settling for field goals, Smith’s offense in Tennessee ranked first and second in touchdown percentage in the red zone during those two seasons. When the Falcons hired Smith to be their new coach, one of the immediate expectations was that the offense would make strides in the red zone. That wasn’t the case.
They ended up finishing 24th in touchdown percentage in the red zone, which was underwhelming. Questions emerged if Derrick Henry was the primary reason behind Smith’s success. There were head-scratching moments, from not being able to gain one yard on four plays at the one-yard line against San Francisco to making numerous errors in going one for four in the red zone against Buffalo. It was clear Smith didn’t trust the offensive line to get one or two yards. No matter how unpredictable he tried to be, it backfired on many occasions, whether he was trying to spread the field and throw a quick pass to running toss plays to the outside.
While you still need to be creative, there must be more effective ways to get tough yards and score in the red zone. Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder can use their legs on option plays, although the former Titans’ quarterback is likely better suited for the role. Qadree Ollison and Tyler Allgeier could get short-yardage opportunities to prove their capabilities. Of course, Cordarrelle Patterson’s extraordinary skillset can’t be discounted.
That said, the offensive line will need to improve significantly, and Smith has to do better in utilizing more effective formations in narrow areas. With the added size at wide receiver and injection of youth at running back, the offense should strive to be converting at least 60% of their red zone opportunities, and clearly this team thinks re-tooling its personnel will help with that.
Finding ways to get the ball in Kyle Pitts’ hands
There is an obvious correlation between the Falcons’ inability to score consistently in the red zone and Pitts scoring only one touchdown last season. How a tight end could catch 68 passes and gain over 1,000 yards, yet only get into the end zone once, is mind-boggling.
Defenses will always key on the rising star. It’s on Smith to dial up plays to put Pitts in more high-percentage situations to not only finish drives but to be featured every week. There were too many occasions last season where Pitts was taken out of games by the opposing defense’s game plan or was anonymous for long stretches.
The Giants, Panthers, Jaguars, Patriots, and Saints shut down Pitts in a multitude of ways. While Pitts’ presence did create openings for other skill position players in wins over New York and Jacksonville, it’s hard to comprehend how someone so talented can be marginalized. That can’t happen again so often this season. Pitts isn’t going to produce eight catches for 100 yards every week. That doesn’t mean he should be held below 40 yards in six games. That’s unacceptable for a player of his caliber.
Most of Pitts’ explosive plays last season came from making contested catches on go balls. As impressive as those plays were, Matt Ryan deserves considerable credit for making those pinpoint passes and putting the ball where Pitts can go get it. The offense won’t be afforded the same luxury this season with Mariota and Ridder. Neither quarterback will likely make those throws on a consistent basis. That means Smith will have to do everything he can to scheme up plays for Pitts. Get him into the open field and watch him produce chunk plays to get drives going.
The touchdowns will eventually come for Pitts, given Drake London’s presence and Bryan Edwards’ knack for making plays in narrow areas. The biggest priority for Smith is doing everything he can to make sure opposing defenses don’t shut down his biggest playmaker out of games like last season, as it will limit this offense’s upside.
Utilizing Drake London as the alpha receiver across the field
When the Falcons’ offense was at full strength last season, there was one frustrating tendency that consistently stood out. Smith was trying to utilize Calvin Ridley like A.J. Brown. Ridley was running numerous digs, slants, and crossing routes. It never looked right and rarely translated into success. Top wide receivers should be able to do it all. Ridley’s lack of comfort trying to make plays across the middle of the field was alarming.
There is no telling to what degree Ridley’s mental struggles or adjustment to the new offense affected his play, and I wouldn’t care to speculate. That said, Smith needs to take some accountability for the offense’s inefficiency when Ridley was taking significant hits across the middle of the field, along with being stopped short of the first down marker.
He never adjusted the offense to suit Ridley’s strengths. Those adjustments aren’t necessary going forward, given Ridley’s yearlong suspension and the decision to draft London with the eighth pick. Smith has a wide receiver who is somewhat similar to Brown.
Smith loves running quick play-action plays where his top receiver finds acres of space on an in-breaking route behind over-aggressive linebackers. That should work nicely with London, who displayed playmaking ability after the catch and showed a willingness to embrace contact at USC. What the fascinating prospect can also do is make contested catches consistently with his big frame and impressive catch radius. While he doesn’t quite have the explosiveness that Brown possesses, London is a terrific fit for how Smith likes to run his offense. It’s time for the pieces to come together and produce the explosive plays that didn’t come to fruition last season.
Not shying away from the primary playmakers to finish game-clinching drives
Although not being able to finish games offensively technically only cost them once against Washington, the Falcons’ offense struggled to finish games and needed the defense to do the job on multiple occasions. In wins against two of the worst teams in the league in Detroit and Jacksonville, they didn’t end the game by getting a pivotal first down.
Some of the failures were due to execution. Other failures can be attributed to coaching. No coaching blunder was worse than Smith going away from Patterson against Washington on what should have been a game-clinching drive. Patterson scored three touchdowns in that game.
Holding onto a two-point lead with less than four minutes to go, the priority should have been to get the ball in the dynamic playmaker’s hands. Instead, Smith called two runs and a quick pass to Mike Davis. How Patterson wasn’t even a factor in those three plays was unfathomable. The Falcons ended up losing in signature Falcons’ fashion.
When your team is defending a narrow lead, you have to be aggressive and get the ball in your best players’ hands. Playing not to lose has punished teams in the worst ways over the years. Whether it’s running the ball with Patterson or designing a quick screen for him (it worked the previous week against the Giants that helped win them the game), he must be included in the play calls, let alone actually being on the field. The same goes for Pitts and London being the primary weapon on early downs. Smith is too good of a play-caller and too sharp of a coach to be ultra-conservative and out of touch with his decisions, and it’s something you’d expect to change this year.
Being more decisive when making personnel changes on the offensive line
After not having much depth on the offensive line last season, the front office prioritized adding competition across the unit. Signing Germain Ifedi and Elijah Wilkinson, along with drafting Justin Shaffer, indicates that the opening day starters won’t be given the same opportunities if they don’t perform.
Jalen Mayfield and Kaleb McGary were both fortunate not to get replaced at some point last season. Matt Hennessey was oddly the only offensive lineman to lose significant snaps. While Hennessey’s play was average at best, it didn’t make much sense for Drew Dalman to only get a few drives in certain games. Rotating offensive linemen in a game hardly ever leads to positive results. Smith can’t go down that route again this season.
Smith needs to be much more cutthroat with his decision-making. If an offensive lineman is proving to be a liability, he can’t start for the team. Mayfield and McGary can’t be afforded countless chances to rectify their mistakes. If they are getting blown off the line of scrimmage or unable to handle power rushes, they must be replaced.
The same goes for Hennessey, who was on the ground far too often last season. It doesn’t matter that the entire offensive line is comprised of top 100 picks. They need to start playing like high-round draft picks or Ifedi, Wilkinson, Shaffer, or Dalman will play ahead of them.
For all the shortcomings and miscues, Smith did a commendable job as a play-caller in 2021 given what this team was working with. He did what he could with limited resources and a disastrous offensive line. The pressure will begin to intensify after what was essentially a free swing last season. If the offensive line allows 200 pressures or even slightly less this season, scrutiny will grow for this coaching staff. Smith will also have to adjust, knowing he doesn’t have the luxury of having an established high-end quarterback like Ryan, though he certainly seems happy and comfortable with his options.
How he moves forward with a player he is familiar with in Mariota or a player he believes could be a franchise quarterback in Ridder will be pivotal for the team’s development. This team clearly isn’t ready to win big now. What Smith can do is help develop franchise cornerstones and look to build a strong identity, picking up victories along the way.
That’s what Smith needs to ultimately accomplish this season. It starts with living up to his reputation as one of the better offensive play-callers in the league. If he can achieve that, it can give the Falcons a launch pad to become a team that could be competitive against the top squads in the NFL. They were completely dismantled when facing playoff teams last season. If Smith can fulfill three or more of these offensive priorities in 2022, the Falcons can surprise opponents and put themselves on the right path after years of disarray, making this year more fun and setting themselves up to be contenders once more.