The Atlanta Falcons are not the worst team in the NFL.
They might not be the best, they might not be in the top 20 and they might still pick high in the 2023 NFL Draft. Blessedly, they’re still not the worst.
It might’ve felt like it after two soul-crushing losses that arguably should’ve been wins, and it almost happened again Sunday after an untimely fumble gave the Seattle Seahawks the ball and a chance to add to the cruel annals of Falcons fracasas.
Naturally, that fumble happened right after a bizarre stoppage in the game due to a rogue drone. Seriously, would a drone cause the Falcons to collapse yet again and go 0-3 on the season? Would the boo birds get louder, starved for the first win of 2022?
Actually, no, not this time. The Falcons defense, which had been mostly dreadful against an surprisingly spry Seahawks offense, came up when it counted with pass rush and a game-sealing pick that finally got Atlanta in the win column. It felt good. My gosh, it felt good.
Are the Falcons now a good team, ready to take a baseball bat to the rest of the schedule? Probably not. Are the Falcons showing continued signs of legitimate progress that they can actually mold into sustained success for years to come? Hell, they just might be.
Is the offense a QB away?
As of Sunday evening, the Falcons are ninth overall in the NFL for average points per game (26.7), sixth overall in average rushing yards per game (156.7 yards) and 15th overall in total yardage (354.3). Though, they’re 26th in the NFL for average passing yards per game (197.7), which might be the moral of the story for offense so far this year.
As much as you want certified good guy Marcus Mariota to succeed, it seems like his foibles as a passer might be holding back the Falcons from achieving more than solid results through the air.
Now, Mariota’s ability to scramble is laudable and unlocks more of Arthur Smith’s scheme, but in the long-term future of the team, it will likely involve a quarterback switch to a signal caller who offers more in the air. Will that be in-house option Desmond Ridder? A free agent like Jimmy Garoppolo, Baker Mayfield or Daniel Jones (we hope not)? A high draft pick like Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Will Levis or (if he finds his footing) Anthony Richardson?
We’ll likely get a look at Ridder sooner than later if the team continues to be so unpredictable in the win-loss column, but it’s telling that everything else seems to be massively improved on the Falcons offense sans the QB play.
The offensive line is paving the way well in the rushing attack and is keeping Mariota relatively clean in the pocket, even if they struggled a bit Sunday. The rushing attack of Mariota, Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier and Avery Williams is giving opposing defenses fits. The young receiving options like Kyle Pitts, Drake London and Olamide Zaccheaus are starting to worry secondaries.
In 2021, Matt Ryan gave the team better decision-making and accuracy, while Mariota opens up the rushing game from behind center and has forged a nice rapport with options like London. Once the Falcons figure out how to enhance Smith’s scheming with more consistent and explosive play, they can take this thing to the next level. At least through three weeks, it feels like that’s going to take finding the long-term option at quarterback. As we all know, that’s never a given, but it’s fair to wonder how long Mariota will have to prove that he can be that player after not making a persuasive case to this point.
Is this what the defense can do at this point?
As promising as the offense has been through three games, the defense has been the definition of inconsistent.
The pass rush is wildly hot and cold, the run defense shows up when it wants to and the secondary can either be electric or nonexistent. Really, the only consistent part of the defense has been the linebacker corps, but even there rookie Troy Andersen is getting to learn on the job and is prone to make mistakes.
Dean Pees has been adamant about wanting to change the culture of the defense, but he’s trying to do so with a very young, unproven gaggle of defenders. While you can gripe about certain coverages and missed tackles, this is still a defense loaded with youth and inexperience. Seattle’s game showed why it might be yet another long year on that side of the ball.
It’s not to say there’s not talent. Grady Jarrett continues to do Grady Jarrett things, A.J. Terrell largely bounced back into 2021 form against Seattle and Mykal Walker is having a Foye Oluokun-esque breakout season with better results in coverage. Players like Anthony Rush, Rashaan Evans, Richie Grant, Jaylinn Hawkins, Ta’Quon Graham, Arnold Ebiketie, Abdullah Anderson and Dee Alford give you flashes, too, and it may just be a matter of more time and seasoning to get this thing running smoothly.
Consistency is just going to come along slowly on this side of the ball. Until then, it’s going to be learning on the job for the Falcons defense. We should probably factor in many, many more growing pains.
Upward and Onward
A win against the 2022 Seattle Seahawks isn’t going to pack Mercedes-Benz Stadium next Sunday for the game against a formidable Cleveland Browns. If this is how the Seahawks run game did against Atlanta, how much trouble is Nick Chubb going to cause?
It’s a reminder that this might be a long year, even when the wins do come. We hope they come in bundles, and that the team can at least match its win total from 2021, if not eclipse it. Nobody’s rooting for a tank job (well, not a ton of people). Sunday’s win in Seattle does show that the Smith Falcons can learn, grow and show a lot of promise, just as their two close but maddening opening losses hinted at.
The offense is already starting to pay off. Once the quarterback situation is sorted one way or the other, perhaps that side of the ball will really start firing on all cylinders. Once the defense starts to gel more and add more talent next season, maybe it can be the consistent unit that we’ve all dreamed of having on a year-to-year basis.
It’s probably not going to all click in 2022, but the Smith Falcons are moving in the right direction. A win sure feels great, but it feels even better to see it come on the wings of progress. Let’s continue to see that as the year goes on.