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Falcons Week 2 roundtable: What can Atlanta do to shock the world?

In the first roundtable discussion of the season, we dissect the biggest talking points going into the Falcons’ exciting matchup against the Super Bowl champions.

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NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Going from hate week to facing an angry, well-rested Rams team is quite the transition for the Falcons. After last week’s horrific yet still very encouraging loss to the Saints, they find themselves in a unique position. There is plenty to build on from both sides of the ball against an opponent that looks more vulnerable than anticipated. As lopsided as this game may appear on paper, the Falcons showed last week they are ready to rise to the occasion and cause opponents fits.

It’s an appropriate time to bring back the roundtable discussion for this season. If you hadn’t read a roundtable piece before, it became a monthly tradition last season with several writers on the website. William McFadden will be joining me for the first one of the season to assess the current state of the Falcons and how they match up against the Super Bowl champions.

Is using Cordarelle Patterson as the focal point of the offense the best way to pull off the massive upset?

Allen Strk: It’s never ideal for a 31-year-old running back who only started playing the position in 2018, to have 25 touches in two consecutive games. That said, Patterson isn’t your standard 31-year-old player. He is capable of doing extraordinary things. Watching him run through contact and finish runs violently against the Saints was a thing of beauty. The Falcons need him to have that type of impact again.

Arthur Smith’s offense will have to do everything possible to control the pace of the game. By running the ball effectively against a light Rams’ front and converting third downs, they could win the time of possession battle with Patterson at the forefront. The Rams aren’t the most consistent team when it comes to tackling and can be undisciplined with their gap responsibilities. As destructive as Aaron Donald is, his absurd get-off can create space to exploit for running backs.

Per Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner, Smith used play action on 18 of 37 dropbacks. Getting Marcus Mariota in space and creating misdirection allowed them to pick up chunk gains without much resistance. Patterson plays a huge role in getting defenses off-balanced and keeping them guessing. Although his touches will have to be monitored at some point, this isn’t the game for it. The Falcons should be full steam ahead with the people’s champ.

William McFadden: I don’t know if I’m ready to say it’s the best way to pull off the massive upset, because I actually think that starts on the defensive side of the ball, but it’s going to be critical. The run game fueled what Atlanta was able to do with its passing game last week, and it aided the offensive line. Plus, let’s not kid ourselves, Patterson is an awesome weapon when he’s running like he did last week.

New Orleans has a defensive line that is in the class of Los Angeles’, and it really couldn’t get a read on what the Falcons were doing because of the success they had on the ground. So, is it the best? Maybe? Is it absolutely essential? Yes.

How does the coaching staff try to get more high-efficient looks for Kyle Pitts after last week’s frustrating performance against New Orleans?

Allen Strk: It’s always going to be tricky when a defense clearly builds their game plan around shutting down Pitts. That was evident against New Orleans. Considering Jalen Ramsey has been used to cover inside receivers, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him matched up against Pitts at times. That puts the onus on the coaching staff to devise high-percentage looks to get their most electrifying playmaker the ball.

As previously mentioned, the Falcons ran play-action about 50% of the time against the Saints. Using Pitts on crossing routes and getting him in motion should create more favorable opportunities. It doesn’t take long for him to get into top gear and blaze past defenders. Lining him up more on the outside could be more beneficial compared to in the slot or as an in-line tight end.

One positive from last week was how Pitts and Drake London created a few big plays on high-low concepts. With the Saints’ secondary having to account for Pitts’ explosiveness as he pushed vertically, London was able to find openings underneath on a few occasions. How both players were paired together to create easy completions in the intermediate areas against New Orleans is something that can be sustainable. It’ll be interesting to see the roles with Pitts getting to catch the passes on in-breaking routes.

William McFadden: After re-watching the game, I actually think the way Atlanta used Pitts was kind of brilliant and a large part of the reason New Orleans only had one hit on Marcus Mariota. The Falcons used Pitts as a blocker and a decoy to great effect.

Marshon Lattimore was often assigned Pitts, leaving Drake London and Olamide Zaccheaus with better matchups more consistently. I expect the Falcons to unleash Pitts more often in the future, but for the season-opening game, this was a wrinkle I don’t think the Saints expected — and it almost worked.

While there isn’t much familiarity given the team’s significant changes, will Raheem Morris’ past ties with the Falcons have an impact in this matchup?

Allen Strk: The Falcons have essentially become a new team since January 2021. Outside of Jake Matthews, Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary, and Olamdae Zaccheaus, no other notable offensive players are on the team from when Morris was the interim coach in the 2020 season. Other than possibly dialing up twists to exploit Atlanta’s offensive line, Morris doesn’t have much to use from his time in Atlanta to possibly gain an upper hand.

Facing an enraged Rams’ defense with two of the best players at their respective positions will be a daunting task for Smith. While the Rams aren’t as well-rounded as the Saints, Donald and Ramsey are players you always must account for.

Troy Hill and Nick Scott continue to make strides to make up a dangerous secondary. Morris’ experience in Atlanta won’t have much of a factor, but his aggressive play calling and ball-hawking secondary can pose serious problems for a Falcons’ passing game that is currently a work in progress.

William McFadden: In an energy sense, yes. My biggest takeaway from watching the Rams’ first game was how aggressive the Los Angeles defenders were playing. Sure, a lot of that comes from the natural personalities of some of the team’s star defenders, but Morris will only encourage and amplify that.

From a schematic sense, I think he’s a more versatile defensive mind than what we saw from him in Atlanta. The Rams have the personnel to do a lot of things, and I expect them to. The matchup between Morris and Smith may be more exciting than any on the field.

Following Buffalo’s success last Thursday, should the Falcons play more zone to frustrate Matthew Stafford or take their chances playing man and have A.J. Terrell shadow Cooper Kupp?

Allen Strk: Attempting to shadow Kupp with your best corner has proven to be a recipe for disaster for most defenses. McVay does an exceptional job of lining Kupp up in different formations and bunch sets to create mismatches.

That makes it extremely difficult for someone like Terrell to track him on every snap when there is so much variance and movement on a snap-to-snap basis. As much as the Falcons struggled to play zone in the second half against New Orleans, it’s likely their best option to prevent Stafford from connecting with his playmakers for huge completions.

The Athletic’s Jordan Rodrigue spoke to Stafford about how much of an effect the Bills’ zone looks, specifically when they played Cover 2, had on him. It disrupted any chance of finding a rhythm with new star wide receiver Allen Robinson. There is no doubt Stafford will look to get Robinson more involved, along with peppering Kupp with double-digit targets. Mixing in a variety of zone looks to prevent 20+ yard plays and force Stafford to make risky decisions is Dean Pees’ defense most viable route for success.

William McFadden: I think it will be a combination of both, but I was very impressed with what I saw from the Falcons in man coverage against the Saints. What makes the Rams tricky to defend, historically, is that they’ve had receivers adept at beating both types of coverage.

Kupp is still one of the post children for that—Justin Jefferson is the other—but I don’t think the Rams have the support around him that they used to. If anything, I think it was Allen Robinson who struggled the most against Buffalo. I wonder if Atlanta might be content to let Kupp get his catches and focus on shutting down everything else.