Take your feelings and your knowledge out of the equation for a moment for everything I’m about to say. If you had a team that had invested:
- In a head coach who calls plays and was a hotshot offensive coordinator for one of the league’s most potent rushing attacks and most effective ground games;
- Three top-10 draft selections in weapons for the offense, including a tight end, a wide receiver, and a running back;
- A decent-sized one-year contract in a bullying back with 14 rushing touchdowns over the past two years, plus a fifth-round pick in a back who is coming off a 1,000 yard season;
- Modest contracts and draft capital in a veteran tight end who had success in the head coach’s offense in the past, a player fresh off an 800-yard receiving season, a speedster who has worked effectively out of the slot at fast stops, and a veteran receiver who was buried on the depth chart with his old team but had a great season just a couple of years ago;
- In an offensive line that features Pro Football Focus’s best guard from 2022, a well-respected and still-talented veteran left tackle, a promising rookie left guard, a former first-round pick and mauling run blocker at right tackle, and an athletic mid-round pick at center who has garnered solid grades this year from PFF, if nothing else;
...where would you assume the offense was ranked in the basics like points scored and yardage?
Personally, I think you would look at those pieces in a vacuum, knowing nothing about the quarterback situation, and think it would probably be an average unit at worst, even if the quarterback wasn’t stellar. You’re describing something like a turbocharged Tennessee Titans offense, you’d think, and that can’t be all that bad. If you knew this team was the Atlanta Falcons and you had seen what they did in 2022 with lesser lights and a smaller budget at several key positions, you might be inclined to assume far better than average.
What makes the Falcons offense so frustrating in 2023 is that all those statements are true. The pieces are here. The acumen and ability are here. Quarterback has at times threatened to derail this team’s plans, and that has to be mentioned in any accounting of this team’s troubles. Yet this team clearly has too much invested on that side of the ball to be 25th in scoring, especially when 60 of their 166 points come from Younghoe Koo’s leg, a mark that ranks third in the league. They are eighth in yards, but to paraphrase what Dean Pees liked to say about his defense the past couple of years, you can put up all the yards you like, but the scores are what matter. There’s a sense in any given week that this big drive might unlock something, but still the Falcons stagger.
So what’s going on? Unhappily, it is a holistic problem, with everything from the coaching staff to the offensive line underperforming and struggling to some extent. To understand what’s going on here, we have to get past our tendency to point at the problem of the week and understand a more important truth: It really is everything.
The only team with more turnover-worthy plays from its quarterbacks than Atlanta is Indianapolis, where Gardner Minshew (17) narrowly beats our Desmond Ridder (16) and Anthony Richardson (4) and Taylor Heinicke (4) are tied. The Falcons are 13th in the NFL in interceptions and 11th in fumbles, so it’s fair to say that they’ve actually been a little fortunate not to have more drives end with the other team picking up a turnover. The most unfortunate piece of the puzzle? They have the sixth-highest percentage of drives that have ended in a turnover in the entire league, at 15.4%.
Ridder has been the primary culprit. He has six of Atlanta’s seven interceptions—Heinicke threw his first in Week 9 in his first Falcons start—and seven of the team’s 11 fumbles. He has been genuinely unlucky in that the team has recovered just one of his seven fumbles—the average NFL rate for offenses recovering their own fumbles is just above 50%—but that luck is balanced out somewhat by the fact that he and Heinicke had six combined turnover-worthy plays that did not result in a turnover. Bijan Robinson has also lost a pair of fumbles with Jonnu Smith losing one; only KhaDarel Hodge lost one and also recovered it.
Again, that points to some bad luck, but it’s also true that the team’s turnovers have been nightmarishly ill-timed and pretty preventable. Ridder fumbling because he didn’t protect the ball inside the 5 yard line or Ridder and Heinicke throwing poorly timed, inadvisable balls isn’t just luck, it’s something that can be worked on and hopefully made better with time and effort. Bijan with a pair of costly fumbles in the open field points toward something he can work on. The problem is that thus far, the work we know the team is putting in to prevent these kinds of turnovers does not appear to be paying off.
Those turnovers have certainly doomed promising drives, including scoring drives, which ties into the team’s ongoing red zone woes. If you cut the number of turnovers in half, this team would have more wins and a rosier outlook, so the lack of care with the football (and again, poor luck) deserve to be placed at or near the top of the list for this football team.
The ground game
Last year, the Falcons were one of the most dominant rushing attacks in the entire NFL. This year, they’re seventh in yardage after finishing third in 2022, but the rate numbers tell a less encouraging story.
The team’s yards per carry average is nearly a full yard less, dropping from 4.9 (fourth in 2022) to 4.1 (14th in 2023). Their yards per game average is down by over 30 yards per game, and they’re on pace to score far fewer rushing touchdowns (17 last year; 7 thus far in 2023). Most strikingly, their expected points contributed by the running game went from 46.17 (sixth in the NFL) to -17.75 (27th). Adding a potentially dominant young player to the mix in Bijan Robinson has not translated into continued dominance here.
Part of that is Allgeier’s inefficiency, which is in turn partly caused by poor run blocking, which in turn has to do with pullback in effectiveness (from the line, from MyCole Pruitt, etc.) and loss of personnel (the great Parker Hesse). Part of it is the team not entirely figuring out how to maximize Robinson, who is getting a considerable amount of work in the passing game (with diminishing results) and perhaps not quite enough touches on the ground where the results have been good-to-stellar. The team’s relative lack of success on third downs on the ground, where they’re averaging two full fewer yards per carry than they were a year ago, is also contributing to their woes.
Yes, defenses are keying the run and trying to force the Falcons to throw; no, they didn’t just start doing so this year. Nothing here is going quite the way it should; Allgeier needs to accelerate a little faster at the beginning of his carries, Robinson needs a little more work, and the blocking has to pick up so both players don’t find a third-to-a-half of their carries beginning with contact at or behind the line of scrimmage. Please note that last number is not exactly scientific, it’s just what it feels like we’re seeing on a weekly basis.
The passing game
Set aside the turnovers and you still have a pretty mediocre aerial attack. Atlanta’s 19th in passing yards, 26th in passing touchdowns, and 17th in adjusted yards per attempt. They’ve eaten 27 sacks, the seventh-highest total in the league, and the passing attack has contributed negative expected points. At best you can say this team is okay at passing the ball; outside of the second half in Tennessee and a couple of big efforts from Ridder, they’ve been an underwhelming group for the third straight season.
Some of that can be traced to quarterbacking, with Ridder starting the season slow, scuffling mightily at times and blundering into sacks, and Heinicke turning in solid but unspectacular games. Some of it can be traced to personnel, with Bijan Robinson’s effectiveness waning for one reason or another as a weapon in the passing game, Mack Hollins being phased in and out, Van Jefferson not really catching on to this point, and Kyle Pitts getting off to a very slow start. Only Drake London and Jonnu Smith have been consistent winners for this passing attack; Pitts is getting there.
Given the lack of receiver depth and quarterback play to this point, the passing attack has a hard ceiling. The Falcons can get a bit more efficient, make better use of their high-end weapons (especially Pitts), and limit turnovers in a way they haven’t to this point and get something league-averageish going. That would be a slight, positive increase that would make a difference for this team.
The offensive line
There’s a curious disconnect between Pro Football Focus grades and ESPN’s win rates for this line, as the former has them 10th in pass blocking and third in run blocking, while the latter has them 25th in pass blocking and 22nd in run blocking. Poking at PFF a little bit reveals that surface number isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, which matches the eye test.
Atlanta has one lineman in the top 50 for pass blocking grade (Jake Matthews, who is 33rd) with Chris Lindstrom at 63rd, Kaleb McGary at 122nd, Matthew Bergeron at 155th, and Drew Dalman at 198th. The Falcons fare better on the ground, as Dalman is the top run-blocking offensive lineman in football per PFF and Lindstrom is third, with Matthews 58th, McGary 64th, and Bergeron 215th. Atlanta has some excellent blocking tight ends, receivers, and so forth, but their play hasn’t exactly been up to snuff and the line itself has regressed from its stellar 2022. Add in growing pains from Bergeron and some truly abysmal penalties from players like Lindstrom who tend to be reliable, plus a dash of errant snapping from Dalman, and you have a problem.
The impact of that shows up everywhere. It shows up in the red zone, where the team has struggled to get the blocks in a compressed area to punch in scores. It shows up for Allgeier and Robinson when they get a carry that has no chance from the jump. It has shown up when the Falcons drop back to pass, although blessedly at a lesser rate last week than in the past, when the team allowed at least seven pressures in all but a pair of games from Weeks 1 through 8.
The line was pretty good in pass protection and superlative in terms of run blocking a year ago and has swung between being a mild liability to pretty good this year, with a frustrating tendency on the run blocking side of being closer to the former. In concert with all of Atlanta’s other problems, that has made an impact.
This team objectively fritters away a couple of plays every game, and you can lay that at the feet of the coaching staff. On plays like the Jonnu Smith jet sweep, the Jonnu Smith to MyCole Pruitt red zone pass, Bijan being in the game with a headache when the team had no intention to use him and getting 50-plus snaps per game but not enough high-leverage touches, and (especially early on) passing plays with limited options for Ridder to get the ball out quickly, Smith and company have been accused of being too clever for their own good, not making use of their personnel effectively, and so on. It’s hard to argue with those charges, at least writ large across the season. Everything on this list is impacted at least somewhat by coaching, because it is the coaching staff (specifically Smith) calling plays and trying to figure out how to put this team in the best possible position to succeed.
The larger beef I have with the staff, which I’ve mentioned in other pieces this week, has to do with the utilization of their best players. Smith is welcome to denigrate fantasy football all he likes—that and gambling have driven thinking around football games that frankly drives me crazy too—but when your offense is scuffling it’s an excellent time to prioritize getting the ball in the hands of a make-’em-miss stud like Robinson, a contested-catch winner like London, a dangerous open field weapon like Pitts, or hell, Even More Jonnu. It is not the time to design routes for Van Jefferson, to mash Allgeier against the teeth of the defense when those plays have so rarely paid off this year, or run trick plays to try to fool a defense you should be able to simply outclass with your plethora of weapons.
There have been adjustments to protection and passing plays that show the coaching staff is learning and trying to improve, but there has been a season-long inability to find a rhythm and keep the offense in it. Getting more out of what’s here and maximizing the tremendous talents on hand has to be the staff’s charge down the stretch.
Red zone woes
I left this for last because it’s probably the single most important item on the list, and because you can’t talk about it without touching on everything above. The Falcons have been whizzing up and down the field at times on their drives despite putrid average starting field position, but their red zone scoring percentage is just 19th in the NFL. Everything we’ve talked about to this point flows into that, and the Falcons are hyper-reliant on Younghoe Koo as a result.
Poor play calling helps doom drives from one yard out. Fumbles at the goal line take points off the board. An offensive line that can’t out-muscle opponents doesn’t give Allgeier and Robinson, who rarely gets the ball in the red zone anyways, a chance to score. A lack of trust in a mediocre passing attack tends to push the team toward doomed runs and trickery. When things tighten up inside the 20 yard line and the margin for error gets thinner, the team’s inability to consistently do anything at a high level is magnified. Atlanta can do some fun things in the open field and has to get within striking distance, but once they get there, the problems almost inevitably rear their head.
Improvement on any or all of the items above will put the Falcons in a position to score more frequently inside the red zone, and they need that to win with the defense showing some worrying cracks in recent weeks. The best time to figure all of this out was early in the second; the second-best time is right now.
Hopefully what you’ve gleaned from this breakdown is that there is no one cause of this team’s offensive woes, which is why scapegoating (while a time-honored tradition) does us zero good. Arthur Smith may well fall on the sword at season’s end if Atlanta finishes with a crummy record and the offense is terrible, but it’s not just a frustrating year from the coaching staff driving this, even if it’s natural and fair to point a finger at the coaching staff. Regression and an inability to play to expectations for nearly every piece of this offense have created a genuinely disappointing year for a group we dared dream would be among the league’s best.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that modest improvements are both possible and likely to make a huge difference, assuming they happen in even a handful of these areas. It’s not hard to imagine Heinicke delivering consistently cromulent performances with just one turnover per week as the team’s quarterback and developing a better rapport with Pitts and London that leads to more success, or a returning Ridder cutting down on the frankly ridiculous turnover rate and piloting the offense the better days.
It’s not hard to imagine a bit of a bounceback from Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary that helps raise the floor of this offense, with some small but steady improvement down the stretch from Bergeron helping a great deal. Getting Allgeier lanes and asking him to hit those holes a bit harder, plus more impactful work for Robinson, should lift the ground game. Getting the coaching staff to throw away the trick plays with low chances of success and prioritize scheming ways to get playmakers the ball on key downs and inside the red zone will lead to better results. Everything is within this team’s grasp, because they remain a relatively healthy offense with enough talent to win.
Whether that will happen with just eight games to go after the Falcons have spent most of the past nine contests riding the roller coaster is anyone’s guess, and the fact that through nine games the lifts have been small and inconsistent suggests we may go the rest of the way without ever seeing the offense as the Falcons and their fans envisioned it. It is, however, possible, and we may as well cling to that faint hope in the absence of any quick fixes.