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How can the Falcons invigorate a languishing passing game?

As the pressure mounts on Arthur Smith’s offense, there is plenty to consider following two dismal performances.

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NFL: London Games-Atlanta Falcons at Jacksonville Jaguars Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The supporting cast is too talented for things to fall apart. The coaching staff had done too much to elevate a roster filled with flaws over the last two seasons to not be productive with their personnel. Those were two common beliefs about the Falcons going into the season. Despite having a massive question mark at the most valuable position in the sport, there were plenty of expectations for how the offense had been assembled, led by a head coach who had proven he could elevate a quarterback with limitations back as an offensive coordinator in Tennessee.

All the sensible summer optimism has crashed after four games. Arthur Smith’s offense hasn’t reached the double-digits point total in the last two games against two playoff-caliber teams they expect to compete with. It’s been a challenge to convert third downs, as they rank 24th in the league. They’ve struggled to get into the red zone. There have been more likely turnovers than potential explosive plays produced in the air.

It’s understandable that quarterback change discussions have started. The offense’s issues go far deeper than quarterback play. The way they move forward as an offense does start with the former third-round pick learning from mistakes.

Desmond Ridder improves decision-making

No matter how many adjustments are made and pass concepts become more varied, the passing game can only truly improve if Ridder makes strides or gets benched. For the sake of the Falcons’ long-term outlook this season, Taylor Heinicke won’t be mentioned further in this piece. Another horrid first-half display of getting picked off twice, nearly throwing a third interception, missing Mack Hollins on a potential touchdown, and getting shut out in the first half would certainly lead to more conversations about Ridder being replaced.

The second-year quarterback will remain the starter, which means the opportunity is there for him to rectify what has largely been a trainwreck start to the season. It was well-documented that he entered Sunday’s game against Jacksonville with the most turnover-worthy throws in the league. From staring down his first read to misreading quick basic passing game concepts, it’s been perplexing how he hasn’t handled rudimentary standards for a quarterback. An inability to play under the slightest duress is also troubling, as Ridder is too often panicking after his first read isn’t open. He runs directly into pressure or turns his back away, allowing defenders a greater advantage towards sacking him.

Ridder showed more poise in the second half by using his eyes to get linebackers off balance to make more accurate, high-percentage throws. It was refreshing following his appalling second interception when he stared down Kyle Pitts on a Yankee concept that Andre Cisco easily capitalized on. If he can use his eyes more proficiently and get a better feel of maneuvering in the pocket, the passing game would see immediate progress simply based on Ridder being able to make accurate throws and get into an actual rhythm. It’s alarming how much the timing has been off in the passing game.

Although his deep ball accuracy is inconsistent at best, there have been stretches where he’s thrown the ball with excellent velocity and ball placement in narrow areas. The way he connected with Drake London for the Falcons’ lone touchdown was perfectly executed. The growing rapport with Jonnu Smith has showcased moments where Ridder put the ball on his back shoulder where only the veteran tight end can make a play on the ball.

It ultimately comes down to processing and composure with Ridder. If he can read coverages better and not get flustered when the pocket begins to collapse, he can slowly recover from the debacle at Wembley Stadium.

More efficiency with play action, spacing on empty sets, and fast starts

One of the best aspects of Smith’s offense in Tennessee was how prolific the passing game was off play action. Ryan Tannehill was able to complete easy-access passes to his big-bodied, explosive receiver duo from working under a plethora of play action concepts. That led to opportunities after the catch off dig routes. It created openings to hit deep posts and over routes. The way they sliced defenses apart in between the numbers was a sight to behold.

After two years of maneuvering around in a difficult cap situation without his ideal personnel, this was supposed to be the season where the Falcons get back to flourishing from using play action with Smith’s personnel. Instead of awkwardly attempting to use Calvin Ridley on in-breakers and slants, London is the number one receiver capable of excelling on those types of routes. The same can be said for Pitts and Mack Hollins, wno can win by using their frame and impressive contested catch skills. Smith’s vision and personnel selections haven’t translated into play action success. Per Pro Football Focus, Ridder has completed 51.4% of his passes off play action. He has been sacked four times and thrown more turnover-worthy balls than big-time passes.

In a run-first offense with an embattled quarterback, the coaching staff has to do better dialing up play action designs to stretch the field and attempt to schematically help players get open. Many passing plays feature receivers being too close to each other. The lack of spacing is reminiscent of Dirk Koetter’s days as offensive coordinator, minus the bizarre infatuation with bubble screens and over usage of shotgun. While the Falcons don’t have a receiver on the roster with game-breaking speed, they have enough athleticism and explosiveness to force defenses off balance and create space across the field for players to capitalize.

There has been plenty of discussion from the team about starting games better. As ESPN’s Michael Rothstein pointed out, the Falcons’ first drives in four games have resulted in three three-and-outs and an interception. They are averaging an abysmal 3.9 yards per play in the first half. Those numbers are a recipe for disaster with an inexperienced quarterback who is struggling to read defenses and handle the pace of games. Smith will take his share of accountability for how much the offense has underwhelmed. It has been nowhere near good enough for someone who worked wonders in Tennessee and built a legitimate juggernaut that overwhelmed top-tier teams.

As much as Ridder needs to do his share to make the correct reads on play action and throw with anticipation, the coaching staff has to do better schematically in providing him and the infrastructure around him with more favorable advantages.

Identifying dependable go-to possession receiving option

As much as Smith loves having size at wide receiver, there are concerns about having enough talent capable of creating instant separation and gaining quick yardage when necessary. Whether it’s third and five or facing a heavy-blitzing scheme, every team needs a pass-catching option who can be relied upon to get open or find an opening in zone coverage on short-designed passes. The Falcons don’t currently have that player at the moment.

They have tried to utilize London in instances, but that’s not his strength as a player. Scotty Miller has barely seen the field. As exceptional as Bijan Robinson has played, he can only line up in the slot or on the outside for a certain amount of snaps. With Ridder struggling mightily and not handling blitzes well, there needs to be an influx of short-passing ideas. The coaching staff will have to take the initiative in that.

Smith was able to get away with not having much of a quick game in Tennessee because the offensive line, running game, quarterback play, and play action were better than what Atlanta currently has personnel-wise. It wasn’t difficult to dial up explosive plays off play action to catch defenses off balance with two physical wide receivers in A.J. Brown and Corey Davis. If they had to get the ball out quicker, screens proved to be an excellent asset featuring their primary skill position players capable of being dangerous after the catch.

The offensive identity needs to evolve to help Ridder progress and provide balance to a fragmented one-dimensional offense. London and Hollins would be misused as strictly possession receivers. While Cordarelle Patterson is intriguing, it’s difficult to see an aging running back make the transition to a role he never played, even back in his days as a full-time wide receiver.

There is one player who could be that consistent security blanket on quick passes to help find a rhythm, who happens to be stuck in a conundrum regarding his role within Smith’s offense.

Finding clarity with Kyle Pitts

At times, the 2021 fourth-overall pick doesn’t look healthy. At times, he is used in nonsensical ways, like blocking on a sprint right play call on a pivotal 4th down against the Jaguars. At times, he looks disengaged with how the offense is operating because he is an afterthought. To not have a clear, effective plan to get the first major piece in your rebuilding strategy consistently involved in the offense over the majority of the last nine games he’s played in is troubling.

From watching how the offense is being designed, Pitts seems to be mostly running down the seam or quick-out routes in the slot. There isn’t much of an attempt to get him on the outside or in stack formations to schematically create favorable mismatches. Throwing a swing pass to him after faking a handoff to Tyler Allgeier is about as creative as it’s gotten this year. That’s deflating when considering Pitts’ unique skillset, along with the fact that impressive Lions’ rookie Brian Branch immediately recognized the play design to turn into a four-yard loss. It’s gotten to the point of pondering whether Pitts isn’t healthy enough to make himself a focal point within the offense or the coaching staff has lost sight of how to maximize his capabilities.

Could making him the team’s primary possession receiver to move the chains and get the passing game in some rhythm prove to be a successful strategy? It would be beneficial for everyone to have Pitts consistently involved and Ridder to have a go-to option on quick passes and hot reads. As dynamic of a talent as Pitts is, he is lost in this current offense. Instead of attempting to use Pitts often as a downfield threat or decoy to create openings, why not see if he can be the player to pick up first downs on stick routes and slants? Put him in the position to be targeted and find his niche in a crowded, stumbling offense after the last 12 months of forgettable individual performances.

Running short to intermediate routes would be a welcome change to give Ridder more opportunities to get the ball out quicker and wiser. Pitts can be effective in a similar role to prime Zach Ertz, where he can punish defenses across the middle of the field with short to intermediate routes. If he is injured, then it’s best to sit him until he’s healthy. Either way, an adjustment to his role at the moment seems like a necessary step.

Pitts is too special of a talent to be anonymous. Having him fill a sizable need while making it a priority for him to make a difference and help convert third downs should translate into a more functional aerial attack.