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Falcons - Vikings Takeaways: Taylor Heinicke can’t fix Arthur Smith’s tedious, confounding offense

New quarterback, same problems. Falcons fans were yet again forced to watch an atrocious offense and mistake-filled football from a team without a direction.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Outside of a few impressive performances, like stretches against Green Bay and Carolina, Atlanta has been playing some ugly offensive football. Sunday’s loss against the Vikings was one of the ugliest, despite the score, and one where fans continue to see the same problems. There was hope a new quarterback would provide a spark, and Smith turned to veteran passer Taylor Heinicke in the place of the uneven second-year player Desmond Ridder. It helped the Falcons were playing against a mediocre Minnesota team at home missing its starting quarterback. Or it should have.

New quarterback. Same problems. Sunday’s game went down the final drive, with the Falcons unable to shake a Vikings team forced into playing a quarterback who had just landed with the team days before. In year three of a three year plan, the Falcons, with seemingly no idea what it is or where it is going, fall to the Minnesota Vikings 31-28.

Taylor Heinicke looks like a backup quarterback

While expected, it was great seeing Heinicke playing with plenty of zip on the football. He’s ready to uncork it, like on a nice 12-yard completion to Kyle Pitts in the first quarter to convert the team’s first 3rd down. While a bit similar to Desmond Ridder in that he was, at times, careless with the football, one big difference is Heinicke was quick to get rid of the ball. Sacks were reduced. However, it didn’t lead to an electric, high-scoring offense,

Heinicke, who seemingly threatening to throw the ball the Vikings multiple times earlier in the game, threw a pick when he absolutely couldn’t throw a pick. The Minnesota Vikings tied up the game late in the third quarter and the Falcons answered by giving the ball right back. He threw the ball behind Damiere Byrd right to a Vikings defender. Joshua Dobbs got a short field and the Vikings turned into three. Wasn’t this why Ridder was benched?

I haven’t been a fan of the change from Ridder to Heinicke. While it may feel good to sit a struggling quarterback, you need a realistic plan. Is Heinicke the future? I think he’s shown in earlier stops he is not. Now we don’t see the most important part of Ridder’s ability: can he bounce back after struggling? Only a week and a half ago, now-analyst Matt Ryan discussed Ridder, and said the next six weeks will tell us a lot about him. Ridder made it two more quarters before he was pulled.

Assuming Heinicke isn’t the future, Smith has essentially benched Ridder and started Heinicke for a better chance to win in 2023, with 2024 yet again looking for another quarterback. The change also didn’t result in a win against a very beatable team, which isn’t so much on Heinicke as it is on the team more generally.

If Arthur Smith has a good plan for the most important position in football, he hasn’t shared it with fans. He seems to lack both an offensive game plan that delivers results and a developmental game plan that makes sense.

The common denominator in offensive problems is Arthur Smith

You’d imagine Arthur Smith would pound the rock with the new quarterback. Well, you’d imagine he would have done that with Desmond Ridder. You’d imagine he would do it simply because the top two draft picks, Bijan Robinson and Matthew Bergeron, were added to help the run game. The expectation was Atlanta should have one of the best run games in the league.

It just hasn’t materialized. Instead, the Falcons came out the door passing. Across the first 21 offensive plays, Atlanta ran the ball only 7 times. The game plan has reminded me a bit of Dirk Koetter, who always said he wanted to run the ball but sure struggled to have that balance.

Smith instead tried establishing the run with about 7 minutes left in the game — when the Falcons previously had only 45 rushing yards. Things looked better once the defense had to account for the run and the offense was balanced. It was Atlanta’s only competent, full drive of the game, finished off by a tough touchdown run by Tyler Allgeier. A touchdown drive with 12 runs for 70 rushing yards is what you would expect regularly from the Falcons. That’s the team’s offensive identity despite the offense’s consistently unbalanced play calling.

More frustrating is Atlanta’s consistently perplexing game plan in the red zone. After the defense forced a fumble and recovered at the 2 yard line, the Falcons were unable to capitalize by getting that additional two yards. Beyond the specifics, the personnel grouping is nonsensical. A nonsensical personnal grouping may be the most consistent thing about Smith’s offense.

In that scenario, Bijan Robinson has to be one of the top players any team would want in that scenario. A versatile, shifty back with great vision and better hands sat on the bench. We’ve seen similar issues with Kyle Pitts on the bench in the red zone in the past. Smith just can’t defend selecting multiple offensive weapons at the top of the draft then ignoring them while struggling in the red zone.

Smith isn’t trying to establish the run, and most of the time when he does, it’s being stymied. Even more concerning is that Smith’s forte in the run game hasn’t translated into into an effective run game. That is also alarming as the team has prioritized acquiring and retaining run-blocking linemen and Bijan Robinson. Three years in and the Falcons offense still hasn’t improved from where it started. Smith has gotten his players, his weapons and has had time to fully install his offensive scheme. It isn’t working.

At least the tight end screen finally worked — Atlanta’s only time finding the end zone all day absent Atlanta’s final drive. Fun note: Jonnu Smith’s score was Atlanta’s first touchdown from outside the red zone this entire season.

This offense is an embarrassment. Smith can’t, or at least shouldn’t, keep his job at the end of the season if things keep going at this rate. Atlanta is struggling mightily against the weakest schedule in the NFL.

Defense carries the day — until the end

What’s the 2023 season been like? Arnold Ebiketie had a strip sack of Joshua Dobbs in the 2nd quarter, setting up the Atlanta offense on the 2nd yard line. Get two yards for seven points. Chris Lindstrom immediately went offsides. Falcons get back to the 2 but can’t capitalize despite getting back to the 2 yard line on first down. One step forward and one step backwards.

Atlanta’s defense keeps throwing the offense a life preserver. Atlanta’s offense keeps turning it away and drowning.

New defensive tackle Kentavius Street was extremely impressive in his first game with Atlanta. Atlanta needed someone to fill in well without Grady Jarrett in the defensive line. He was active in stuffing the run, but most impressively, he secured a Joshua Dobbs fumble (initially ruled an interception) giving the offense great field position. Fittingly, the offense again failed to score a touchdown. Giving Ryan Nielsen his former Saints defensive lineman has turned out to be a very good idea.

Jeff Okudah has been an important tone setting in the secondary. He’s delivered big hits nearly every week, including perhaps the most impactful of the game: stuffing quarterback Jaren Hall at the goal line, which also forced Joshua Dobbs in at quarterback. Okudah has been one of the low risk, high reward acquisitions who really paid off. He has earned a new deal with Atlanta.

An honorable mention to the stud Nate Landman. He made plays all across the field, showing sideline-to-sideline ability doing everything from sniffing out screens to stuffing goal line runs. He also made a key play in coverage on Minnesota’s final drive. Landman is another impressive undrafted player found by general manager Terry Fontenot.

The defense largely kept the offense in this one. In a couple of key moments and especially at the end, they couldn’t. If that trend continues, this team is in even more trouble.