The GIF review series gets to dive into a win for a change following two abysmal offensive showings by the Falcons. They put together their best performance of the season, despite their issues on the ground. Analyzing a well-coached, high-intensity defense is starting to become the norm. It continues to be a treat to witness a defense transform from a helpless unit into a rugged defense that is ready for battle in the trenches and makes tackles in the open field.
Arthur Smith Breaks Out the Playbook
After a lackluster first drive, Arthur Smith apparently decided it was time to let loose and provide a much-needed jolt to a lackadaisical offense. A reverse to Drake London didn’t seem logical, considering the rising star doesn’t have the breakaway speed or tackle-breaking agility to evade defenders. With Jonathan Greenard recognizing the concept and playing strong contain, this play looked doomed from the start. It doesn’t help matters that the execution wasn’t smooth in the ball transition.
What ultimately makes the difference is London actually impressively shifts past Greenard, and Jonnu Smith remains patient. The tight end never lets his guard down and subtly prepares himself to block before gliding downfield. That gives London just enough time to find him downfield for one of the most disjointed 20+ yard completions in franchise history. This moment ended up setting the tone for one of the most creative, efficient games you can ask for from a previously stumbling offense.
This is one of those play calls where viewers felt Arthur Smith had a real point to prove. While outside criticism doesn’t seem to faze him, the fiery head coach had to dig deep following two single-digit offensive outputs. The playcalling wasn’t good enough in losses to Detroit and Jacksonville. Attacking defenses more vertically and get them off-balance was a priority. They lived up to the task with clever play designs, like having Keith Smith run a rail route for a big play.
This is very reminiscent of how Kyle Shanahan likes to utilize Kyle Juszcyzk to stretch defenses and exploit open space in 22 personnel. With London running a hook and Tyler Allgeier in the flat off play action, Henry To’oTo’o and Jimmie Ward are occupied. That leaves Smith open downfield, where Ridder fires a dart into the seam for a 28+ yard completion. This play is a thing of beauty.
The manner in which they were looking to score in multiple ways on the two-point conversion is remarkable. From an initial look, it appears to be a fake sprint right to hit Jonnu Smith on the shovel pass inside, which has become popular over the past few seasons, largely because of the Chiefs. Instead of going the somewhat predictable, likely disappointing route, they have Allgeier run into the flat towards the side where Kyle Pitts and Bijan Robinson are lined up. With Pitts commanding the attention of multiple defenders and setting a natural pick by simply fighting through the corner route, the space is clear for Allgeier to capitalize on.
If the powerhouse back was covered, Robinson would be an option on the in-breaking route, as Houston’s defense is scrambling. Let’s not forget London is crossing over and creates separation at the back of the end zone. This is one of the best play calls Smith has made all season. To do it in a pivotal moment, securing two points, was a terrific decision by Smith to go along with the fantastic execution.
Desmond Ridder’s Revival
This was Ridder’s most impressive throw in the game. Not many throws were made in tight windows, as Atlanta Journal Constitution’s D. Orlando Ledbetter posted that only 5.4% of his passes were made in that area. His 19-yard completion to Mack Hollins was one of the few that proved to be quite the eye-opener. It’s been a struggle for both players to get on the same page this season.
They were in unison on this play action design, as Ridder does a fantastic job putting the ball behind the massive wide receiver to avoid having him run squarely into coverage. By sitting him down with pinpoint accuracy, the throw gives Hollins time to adjust and make a clean play on the ball. This throw displayed great confidence and anticipation, which is hugely encouraging to see from a young quarterback.
London will deservingly receive most of the praise, but let’s not overlook the ball placement and decisiveness from Ridder on this massive completion. There’s no hesitation in where he is going once diagnosing London is matched up on the outside in man coverage with no safety help. Knowing the former top ten pick’s primary specialty involves making contested catches with his wide frame and tremendous athleticism, he guides the ball downfield where only his receiver can catch it.
This is the type of aggressiveness Ridder has to play with to get the offense playing up to its capabilities. As for London, this play reiterates why he must be receiving eight to ten targets a game. His strong hands, positional awareness, and body control make him incredibly difficult to contain, even when covered.
From After Thought to Focal Point: Kyle Pitts Is Here
The enigmatic tight end finally found his comfort zone in the Falcons’ passing game. After weeks of being largely anonymous, Pitts was targeted consistently in the slot and on the inside in five receiver empty sets. This 16-yard completion sets up the first touchdown in the game with wonderful timing and pace. Pitts understands the coverage and looks for the soft part of the zone. Not going full speed helps make the flood concept work in gliding his way towards the left corner.
The play fake to Allgeier was effective in keeping the linebackers’ attention toward the possibility of a checkdown. Ridder throws the ball with conviction right on time of Pitts’ break at the top of the route. Plays like this will hopefully be the blueprint for the former fourth-overall pick as the best option as a dependable possession, move-the-chains receiver, who can obviously be a vertical threat as well.
Sail concepts played an influential role in Pitts’ productive performance. Attacking opposing defenses with three routes at three different levels on one side of the field is something this offense should be able to flourish with. They have the playmakers to force the opposition into a bind. By motioning Robinson to the left, the underneath defender has to accommodate for his presence as a checkdown option. That leaves London and Pitts attacking zone coverage at the other two levels.
Running the same routes at the same trajectory keeps the deep safety guessing on who is going to run a straight go and who will change direction at the top of the route. Both players run identical routes, with London as the clear out receiver. That gives Pitts a great opportunity to make another important catch to get the offense in a rhythm. It was hugely encouraging to see Pitts be used more aggressively and, most importantly, begin to look healthy.
Can’t Escape the Crowded Boxes
It’s no secret DeMeco Ryans set his defense up to stop the run with eight-man boxes. Between the pre-game interviews to aligning his setups early on in the game, the Texans were going to put every ounce into making sure they weren’t going to get punished on the ground. Even when the Falcons decided to go heavy in 13 personnel with an overload to the right, they countered with immense power, blistering speed, and proper discipline. Look no further than Will Anderson fighting through a double team to shut down one gap. That creates space for Jalen Pitre to fly in. Chris Lindstrom falls to pick up his assignment on the second level block, leading to no yardage gained.
Houston’s defense was flying to the ball against the run and proved to be the bullies in the trenches during long stretches of the game. Arthur Smith had to start running more misdirection and stretch runs to create mismatches on the perimeter to get some semblance of a running game going.
Running more misdirection didn’t lead to much initial success. Even when running their signature counter run to get Drew Dalman and Hollins into space with Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary sealing off, Houston was ready for it and delivered the pain to go along with the loss of yardage. Anderson commits a crime scene by bulldozing into Dalman, forcing the helpless center to the ground and drawing a holding penalty in the process. Hollins doesn’t know who to block with multiple defensive backs in front of him on the pull. He ends up going outside, allowing Pitre a clear lane to knock Robinson off balance.
The Falcons couldn’t find the answers on the ground to what Houston was bringing with these crowded boxes. They got overpowered and lost in one-on-one matchups time and time again. Thankfully, for their sake, the quarterback came ready to play with a plethora of pass-catching weapons ready to put the last two troubling weeks behind them. That has to keep happening to force defenses to change their gameplan.
Bijan’s Jaw-Dropper of the Week
This review series is going to end up dedicating a section to the rookie sensation every week at this rate. There are things he does on a football field that only a few skill position players could even consider pulling off. That’s how special of a talent he is. It’s another shrewd play call with the shovel pass to capitalize on an aggressive Houston front and utilize Robinson’s playmaking brilliance. It wasn’t necessarily well executed, as Lindstrom is slow off the line of scrimmage and nearly gets Ridder crushed.
The shovel pass ends up going behind Robinson, although that ends up making the touchdown even more memorable. How he pins the ball with one hand behind his back to maintain control and then jukes past To’oTo’o immediately afterward is outrageous. It’s only the fifth game of the season, and I’m running out of adjectives to express how phenomenal of a player he is.
Run Defense Sets the Standard
Holding Houston to four of 13 on third downs was crucial in this much-needed win. The defense set the tone on the first drive on third and short. Houston appears to be running a counter design, while the Falcons are in a heavy bear front with three interior linemen lining up squarely against the interior line. That gives Bud Dupree a favorable matchup against Dalton Schultz.
With Tytus Howard failing to get any push on his combo block on Grady Jarrett and Laremy Tunsil unable to seal off David Onyemata, it gives Dupree enough time to burst in after a nifty swim move to disengage. This is a fantastic all-around play from all three defensive linemen in getting off blocks and creating penetration to halt any possibility of a third down conversion.
It’s become a weekly tradition that Dee Alford makes an impressive open field stop for a minimum gain or tackle for a loss. His knack for diagnosing plays off the ball and taking the right angles is hugely impressive for a player who didn’t have much NFL experience playing nickel corner.
Along with Alford, Dupree and Nate Landman do an excellent job at evading blocks to close down Tank Dell off the toss. The overall awareness and discipline on the defense is one of the primary reasons behind this unit making substantial strides this season.
Being at the right place at the right time is one of the better compliments a linebacker can receive. That sums up Landman’s season so far. The veteran linebacker has performed admirably in replacing Troy Andersen. His ability to navigate in traffic and fight through blocks makes him an asset against the run.
There is no wasted movement. He processes well and makes sure to play fundamentally sound. As he changes direction and shifts past Howard, he sets his feet and wraps up Dell with proper technique. Landman has been one of the true unsung heroes in the defense’s rise to being a potentially formidable unit.
Picking Up For Each Other
As much as the secondary had to be at the top of their game due to the lack of pressure, there was a moment when the front four came alive. Calais Campbell had a couple of flashes where he shifted inside to disrupt C.J. Stroud’s timing with his receivers. Not being able to see the field due to pressure turned into a huge relief as Dell was wide open, coming off a stack on the shallow cross. Playing man coverage created a miscommunication from the secondary as nobody picked up the dynamic rookie wide receiver.
With Campbell bouncing inside on one of the few effective drawn up pressures, Stroud had to throw into traffic off balance for an incompletion. As one level of the defense falls short, the other level picks things up and makes something happen when necessary. That was the story of the game for the defense.
Alford Continues to Shine
On a revamped unit filled with highly-regarded veterans and a star safety bolstering the unit, there is one young player who feels like a new signing this season. Alford only played 246 snaps in a limited role last season, playing within dime packages. He has nearly surpassed that total at 237 snaps in five games, earning his place as the nickel corner and emerging as one of the most consistent players across the defense.
In outside leverage against Robert Woods, he has an immediate feel for the route and anticipates the skinny post. His break on the ball is on point, followed by a picture-perfect pass breakup. From being a physical presence against the run to a dependable tackler to savvy in coverage, the former CFL star is becoming a true difference-maker.
Failed Schemed Up Pressures
For the first time all season, Ryan Nielsen’s blitzes and creative pressures failed to produce notable pressure. Per Pro Football Focus, they recorded two hits and four hurries on 35 dropbacks. Not having Troy Andersen takes away some juice from creating these pressures because of his explosive, athletic traits. As well as Landman has played, he’s nowhere near as quick as the former second-round pick. Designs like this end up becoming sluggish and predictable. Nielsen loved using DeMario Davis and Pete Werner as blitzers in unique ways to get offensive lines discombobulated, and quarterbacks rattled. That’s difficult to replicate with linebackers who are not near their level as respective players, especially when that situation goes along with a below-average group of edge rushers.
Stroud is able to operate in and out of the pocket to find a wide-open Dell. From the design to personnel usage, it was disappointing how Stroud was able to remain untouched and be at ease for the majority of the game. Nielsen will need to learn from this to avoid having more experienced quarterbacks capitalize on a pass rush without much production coming off the edge and far too reliant on interior pressure, along with blitzes.
Final Drive Dejection
Besides a non-existent pass rush, the only other genuine disappointment was how the defense fared on the final drive. They looked fatigued on all three levels. This run straight up the gut encapsulates how overmatched they were at times. Onyemata can’t get any movement on Shaq Mason, while Jarrett gets driven away from the A-Gap. As Landman gets cut on the lead block, Pierce has the most running room he’s seen all game.
The front seven showed signs of wearing down against Detroit two weeks ago, understandably due to the discrepancy in time of possession, with the Falcons’ offense incapable of manufacturing anything positive. Time of possession heavily favored Atlanta in this matchup, which is why the front should have performed far better on a pivotal drive that could have sealed the win.
It’s an understandable, albeit still disappointing gamble from Jessie Bates. On the previous drive, he nearly intercepted a pass intended for Woods on an over route. He anticipates Schultz running something similar to keep the chains moving. That proves costly as he sits on the route hard and puts himself in a position where he can’t flip his hips and change direction.
The move from Schultz at the stem of the route isn’t all that deceptive. It’s more on Bates believing he could potentially make a game-ending play than staying disciplined. This is the second week Bates has been badly out of position on a coverage assignment. Trevor Lawrence missed Christian Kirk last week. Stroud was missing this throw.
Third Down Lockdown
Despite not making any impact from a pass rushing standpoint, Dupree made numerous savvy plays against the run and in passing situations. He aims to bull rush here but gets stonewalled in generating power. Instead of forcing something that isn’t there, he senses Stroud’s release and deflects the pass.
It nearly ends in Stroud throwing his first career interception to the player who consistently finds himself in the right position in Landman. If the pass isn’t deflected, Woods likely catches the ball after creating enough separation on the comeback against Alford. Timely plays on third down paid off.
When Houston attempted to get creative on third and short, Nielsen’s defense was prepared and left them without options. It appears to be a leak play to get a screen set up after overloading the left side with receivers. Kaden Elliss quickly identifies the play design and closes down on Mike Boone. Between Campbell’s arm over inside move and Onyemata causing traffic after recognizing what was occurring, Stroud had no choice but to throw it away.
Forcing the quarterback to essentially take a loss on a crucial play without allowing him to do something productive is a huge testament to how well-organized and astute the unit is when offenses aim to be crafty.