When a team begins to crumble, identifying the reasons behind their losing streak is normally a straightforward process. Coaching is bound to be scrutinized, no matter what the personnel is. If the quarterback isn’t making enough plays, he will be critiqued for not taking command playing the most important position in all of sports.
That all applies to the Atlanta Falcons during their unexpected, unfathomable last three defeats. To determine how a once-promising season has unraveled into a team of disarray, losing three consecutive favorable matchups, we need to dig deeper.
Arthur Smith will understandably be under pressure for his unbalanced play calling, frustrating tendencies, lack of formation variation, and the offense’s inability to execute in pivotal short-yardage situations and capitalize on turnovers. There is a plethora of issues that can be examined when it comes to the Falcons’ beleaguered head coach. What we haven’t spent much time on, but is important, is the state of the team’s draft classes since 2021 and how that has impacted the team’s current fortunes.
Terry Fontenot received well-deserved praise for allocating resources into addressing positional flaws and signing the right personnel in free agency. There’s no denying the impact made by adding Jessie Bates, David Onyemata, Calais Campbell, and Kaden Elliss. Trading for Jeff Okudah and Jonnu Smith has proven to be excellent, savvy moves on his part. The success that Atlanta has had this year can be heavily credited to those moves.
They have done well in adding proven upper-echelon players, true leaders, and intriguing talent who needed a change of scenery to be in a position to thrive. For all those quality acquisitions, it’s hard to grow into a credible playoff team when the young players expected to develop fail to take the necessary strides in their development.
Outside of the terrific efforts from the dependable linebacker tandem of Nate Landman and Elliss—and even they scuffled in coverage—there aren’t many positives coming out of the loss to Arizona for a diminished defense. They rarely contested any passes, allowed big plays off sloppy open-field tackling in the second half, and struggled to disrupt Kyler Murray’s rhythm if blitzes weren’t dialed up.
While not having Onyemata was a significant loss, there comes a point where players from other positions have to step up and start proving why the organization entrusted them to be starters within a rebuilt defense. Too many players aren’t doing that or have already shown in the coaching staff’s eyes they are incapable of being depended on, which is an indictment of the current regime’s decision to use a mid-round pick to draft them.
Richie Grant and Arnold Ebiketie were expected to blossom into above-average players. With Grant’s knack for being around the ball and being a tone-setter when entering the league, he appeared to be the ideal fit to replace Keanu Neal as a more versatile strong safety. Ebiketie’s technical proficiency coming off the edge was a refreshing change from the past pass-rushing prospects the Falcons selected. Instead of going for sheer athletic traits like the previous regime, they selected someone with a pass-rushing arsenal who wasn’t coming into the league as a raw prospect.
Neither player has developed into a dependable starter. Per Pro Football Focus, Grant has already missed a whopping 12 tackles this season. His inability to consistently handle man coverage responsibilities against tight ends when called upon leaves the defense shorthanded. Without Troy Andersen, who the jury is still out on, the defense doesn’t have a linebacker comfortable in isolation against tight ends. Grant was supposed to be the solution, yet Trey McBride, who wasn’t shy about his excitement when matched up against Grant, was the latest tight end to beat him convincingly.
For all the occasional flashes of good quality run defense and an impressive last-ditch pass breakup when playing zone coverage, Grant’s frequent coverage busts resulting in big plays are turning him into a liability. The coaching staff has started to reduce his snaps, which could indicate they are starting to consider alternatives.
Grant isn’t the only second round pick in the Fontenot-Smith era to leave a lot to be desired. Ebiketie isn’t providing any juice off the edge. Although his sack total this season (3.5) has surpassed last season (2.5), those sacks are primarily comprised of clean-up sacks or the opposing quarterback making a self-inflicted mistake. It’s rare to see him winning his matchup with power, technique, or speed. His lack of bend and athleticism was highlighted on draft scouting reports.
That hasn’t changed at the pro level, with opposing tackles able to maintain a strong base and drive him away from the pocket. To make matters worse, Ebiketie has struggled to make stops when the opportunity is there to finish plays. His miss on Murray on the final drive was the latest gaffe from a Falcons’ defensive lineman who couldn’t finish a sack to close out a game. While Ebiketie has been one of the team’s more productive pass rushers on a per-snap basis, that isn’t staying much given the state of this pass rush.
Other than Ta’Quon Graham, who is starting to play better after a slow start to the season, the rest of the defensive draft picks aren’t contributing, currently injured, or not on the team anymore. DeAngelo Malone doesn’t appear to be a fit for this coaching staff. Darren Hall was released before the season. Ade Ogundeji is out for the season, but he was arguably the defense’s biggest liability last season, offering little to nothing off the edge or in run support. A raw prospect like Zach Harrison will need time, but he hasn’t stood out in limited snaps as a rookie. DeMarcco Hellams is delivering a few moments, but he and Clark Phillips have had limited chances to impact the game to this point.
For a defense that had to be revamped after an abysmal 2020 season, you can’t pinpoint a defensive player who was drafted by the current regime that has developed into a difference maker. That isn’t a formula for success, no matter how much cap space an organization may have. Young talent has to emerge, or the ceiling of how much a defense can improve will be felt sooner rather than later.
Positionless football was the motto going into the season. Based on how they used all three top-ten picks since 2021, the vision was clear in adding dynamic players who can be versatile and thrive in a variety of ways. An offense with Kyle Pitts, Drake London, and Bijan Robinson should create endless possibilities.
Instead, the aim to play positionless football has translated into directionless football. That largely falls on the coaching staff. All three players have proven they can play at a high level during stretches. The issues lie within the trenches and not adding a crucial element to a disjointed passing game.
It became quickly apparent that they made a mistake picking Jalen Mayfield. Rookie offensive linemen will endure their lumps, but they shouldn’t be completely overmatched every week like Mayfield was. While Matthew Bergeron has not struggled to that extent, he has made critical errors often this season that have derailed drives. Whether it’s not getting leverage, losing his balance on run blocks, or not getting his hands ready fast enough in pass protection, his mistakes have greatly affected an underperforming offensive line. Drew Dalman has glaring flaws in pass protection, but what he offers as a run blocker is incredibly valuable in Smith’s scheme. Along with Tyler Allgeier, he has been this regime’s best third-day pick.
The strategy behind drafting three skill position players is an entirely different topic. What deserves mention is the Falcons’ recent insistence on not having a sharp route-running wide receiver who can be counted on to move the chains on short, quick passes. Other than Frank Darby, they haven’t taken a chance on a wide receiver in the later rounds who would be an ideal possession receiver and dependable safety option within an offense filled with uncertainty at the most valuable position. Instead, they used their late-round picks on offensive linemen who likely won’t play a snap for the team.
Smith’s offense produced consistent chunk plays through the air with A.J. Brown and Corey Davis. When those Tennessee offenses had to play from behind and throw the ball 30 to 35 times a game, they didn’t possess the all-around supporting cast to overcome those deficits. The lack of a crafty, sure-handed receiver that can create mismatches in empty formations is derailing the offense.
Taylor Heinicke took multiple coverage sacks when the offense lined up with five wide. Some of those failures can be placed on Smith’s unimaginative pass concepts. That said, not having a wide receiver who excels at creating separation has been detrimental, especially given how often the team finds itself on third and five-plus yards. They never replaced Russell Gage after losing him in 2022. They sure could use a player like him right about now.
Looking At Everything
That’s what Smith and the coaching staff will be doing during the bye week. It’s going to take more than play-calling adjustments and better personnel usage to put the Falcons in a position to move forward successfully. The drafting from this regime hasn’t been good enough so far. Fortunes may change if players like Andersen and Bergeron grow into being the driving force behind their respective position’s success. That can’t rectify the several failed picks and players regressing to the point where they could become rarely-used backups.
Fontenot and Smith did what they could in dire circumstances during the first two seasons. This season was supposed to be their time by having their core of players selected from the past three drafts to go along with several off-season additions and franchise cornerstones drafted by the previous regime. If this downward spiral continues, they won’t be able to assemble a fourth draft class together, at at least one of them may very well be replaced.