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Crisis Roundtable: Addressing the Falcons’ biggest problems

In what is rapidly becoming the most disappointing season since 2018, Atlanta faces a reality check following two inexplicable defeats.

NFL: NOV 05 Vikings at Falcons Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A crisis has struck for the Atlanta Falcons. What was supposed to be the most favorable stretch of the schedule has turned into a complete disaster for the Falcons. Losing two games that everyone expected them to win leaves the entire organization in disarray. Long-term questions have to be asked about the team’s outlook and direction.

It’s going to be a lengthy discussion for the monthly roundtable. Dave Choate, Matt Chambers, Cory Woodroof, and Aaron Freeman join me for what will up there as the biggest one ever. There are plenty of subject matters to dissect involving a team with substantial concerns offensively, defensively, and organizationally. Let’s get to it.

If you haven’t read a roundtable before, the two most recent ones took place before the season and in October.

On a long list of issues, what is Arthur Smith’s biggest priority correction to help salvage a disoriented offense?

Allen Strk: It aligns with regaining their offensive identity and utilizing the most dynamic player within the offense. The strategy behind relying on Taylor Heinicke as a drop-back passer running constant empty sets and having him operate long-developing plays was nonsensical. As disappointing as the running game has been for notable stretches of the season, it shouldn’t have been disregarded as an afterthought until the final offensive drive of the game, especially with Drake London sidelined. The Falcons have to be relentless in running the ball, given how capable they are of wearing opposing fronts out.

This connects with Bijan Robinson’s bizarre usage. In three of Atlanta’s four wins this season, the rookie sensation has either been very productive on the ground in a lead role or scored a highlight-reel, game-changing touchdown to propel the team to victory. How Jonnu Smith is being used as the primary weapon and, sometimes, the focal point in the red zone is unfathomable. Robinson has endured his setbacks. from being sluggish coming off the line of scrimmage on his routes to multiple fumbles.

Those are growing pains, not alarming mistakes that warrant his snaps being reduced. Whatever the supposed reasoning is behind limiting his usage in recent weeks, outside of the victory over Tampa Bay, it needs to end immediately. He shouldn’t have one touch on 18 plays inside the five-yard line. This offense needs Robinson to be featured to become the potent unit it was supposed to be.

Dave Choate: Use your playmakers in the red zone and on critical downs!

The statistics have been flying on X and elsewhere about the absurdly low usage for Kyle Pitts and Robinson in high-leverage situations, but it bears repeating here. Robinson has one touch inside the five-yard line on 18 such opportunities in 2023 for this offense, and Pitts is being used like a competent second receiver instead of a potentially game-changing tight end. Out of the team’s stars, only Drake London is getting the kind of usage his talent merits, especially in the red zone, and even then I think you could cook up more and better plays for him.

This has to stop. I know defenses will be expecting you to get the ball to your studs in the red zone, but you drafted those players with the knowledge that they’re good enough to win if you put them in a position to succeed. These are not players who need massive upticks in volume to be effective; they just need to be used more in critical third down situations, inside the red zone, and in situations where their elite traits can shine through. The team’s avoidance of those outcomes in favor of Jonnu Smith receiving jet sweeps and red zone passes and critical third down throws to Van Jefferson is infuriating.

I don’t care if this isn’t fantasy football, as Arthur Smith likes to say while waving his hands around and pleading with reporters to ask him about the decalcification of coral reefs. Smith has talked a lot about rolling with Heinicke the past couple of weeks because the team needs wins, so it’s time to act as that urgency extends to putting the ball into the hands of the offense’s very best players.

Cory Woodroof: He’s got to put more points on the board. If this team were more effective in the red zone, they wouldn’t be losing games. It’s just that simple. Until this team is able to convert more field goals into touchdowns, this team is going to continue to hold itself back.

You can point to usage problems, blocking lapses, and play calls that don’t work out, and you’d be fair to do so. However, this team is running out of time to figure out its red zone issues. Smith’s offense is doing well moving the ball; it’s just not getting the payoffs needed to succeed.

Aaron Freeman: The foundation of the Falcons’ offense stems from their run game. Getting the ground attack back to performing at the elite level, or close to it, should cause the biggest improvement to the offense in the short term. Regardless of which quarterback the Falcons roll with, asking that player to do the heavy lifting was never something that should be expected.

Smith’s claim to fame upon arriving in Atlanta was his ability to engineer a top rushing attack and red-zone offense. If the Falcons can run the ball effectively, one should help lead to the other.

Matt Chambers: Politely, he needs to get his damn run game together. This offense is a mess without it. Smith was hired as a run game specialist who can help take control of the game and pressure off his quarterback and his defense.

That hasn’t been happening, even with the 8th overall pick used on the draft’s most dynamic running back. I suppose an offensive-minded coach should be able to get at least some part of an offense to look decent. I think the run game should be it.

Was the decision to bench Desmond Ridder for Taylor Heinicke sensible, and does Heinicke deserve to start against Arizona following an uneven showing against Minnesota?

Allen Strk: Although he showed genuine progression as a pocket passer, it’s hard to depend on a quarterback who commits 13 turnovers in eight games. That total should have been higher, considering Green Bay and Detroit missed clear interception opportunities against Ridder. His inability to protect the ball and maneuver around the pocket became too much of a hindrance for an offense that clearly possesses plenty of talent.

Despite his struggles, Heinicke’s second-half performance was filled with numerous poorly thrown passes, questionable decisions, and one calamitous interception throwing well behind Damiere Byrd. The veteran quarterback has always been turnover-prone, but he didn’t do much to compensate for those glaring errors. Not having London or Mack Hollins for most of the game likely affected him to some extent. He should receive another opportunity to see if he can provide a jolt for the offense with London hopefully healthy.

A poor performance against Arizona followed by the bye week could spark a return for Ridder. If Heinicke can’t produce against one of the worst defenses in the league, there’s no justifying putting him out there with looming matchups against top-tier defenses in the Saints and Jets.

Dave Choate: It was a sensible decision, given that you signed Heinicke to be your parachute if Ridder struggled, and Ridder was absolutely struggling. Pro Football Focus tagged him with 16 turnover-worthy plays in 7.5 games, an average of over two per contest, and that rash of turnovers and ill-timed sacks was killing the offense. Making a change to see if Heinicke could give them a spark made perfect sense, and for a half against the Titans, he did exactly that.

Now the Falcons will roll with him for another week, which makes sense given that yo-yoing your quarterbacks is not a particularly wise idea and Heinicke played some solid football. But I don’t think we saw enough from Heinicke to think the benching for Ridder is a lock to lo last past the bye, making the Arizona game a really important one for him.

Against the Vikings, Smith was quick to point out that Heinicke led them to 28 points, but that’s actually misleading. Heinicke scrambled once for 13 yards on the Tyler Allgeier touchdown drive and hit Jefferson for 14 yards, but every other play on that 79-yard drive was a run for Robinson or Allgeier. On Jonnu Smith’s 60-yard rumble, Heinicke threw a sharp ball on a screen that traveled about 10 yards before he watched Smith and the blocking do the rest, and on every other drive the offense stalled out and had to settle for field goals or punt. Heinicke also had four really bad throws, three of which were tagged with the turnover-worthy play label by PFF, giving him four on the season in 1.5 games. That’s a worse pace than Ridder was on, unbelievably.

I get why the Falcons went to Heinicke and why they’re sticking with him, and his processing speed and ability to avoid pressure is a boon for this offense that Ridder simply wasn’t giving the team. While this has all been logical, an honest re-evaluation at the bye after another performance like the one in Week 9 may still lead the Falcons to give Ridder another shot to show what he’s got, given that there’s still a sliver of a chance of him salvaging his season and sticking in the job that simply doesn’t exist with Heinicke.

Cory Woodroof: It’s hard to say. On one hand, Sunday’s loss to the Vikings showed that Ridder’s struggles were as much a product of the environment as they were his own errors. It’s not likely Ridder would’ve willed this team to anything meaningful this season, but Heinicke is not a long-term solution, and Ridder, hypothetically, could’ve continued to improve into one.

On Sunday, Heinicke didn’t even look like that much better of a quarterback than Ridder had. You sympathize with the need for there to have been a spark on a dysfunctional offense, but the quarterback switch, so far, hasn’t been the solution. There’s still time, however, for this change to produce more short-term results.

Aaron Freeman: If it was up to me, I would’ve stuck with Ridder. But since it’s not up to me, and ultimately, it won’t be me who suffers the consequences of that choice. As for whether Heinicke deserves to start, his performance against the Vikings was iffy at best. Similar to Ridder, he put the ball in harm’s way far too often.

Unlike Ridder, Heinicke didn’t look as comfortable running some of the staple passing concepts of the Falcons offense. Perhaps that will improve with another start. Heinicke is a known commodity that offers some security. But it remains to be seen if what we know makes him a better option than Ridder moving forward.

Matt Chambers: I wasn’t a fan of benching RIdder. I’m highly skeptical Heinicke will turn into Atlanta’s 2024 starter... so what’s the point in 2023? Despite my Ridder preference, that’s not to say that I believe Ridder is the future or even that Ridder is better than Heinicke. But as happens with every young quarterback ever, Ridder ran into problems. The question is if Ridder could fix those problems and bounce back. However, we never found out. Should Heinicke fail, haphazardly throwing Ridder back into action three to six weeks later is a practice seen by bad teams. Ridder never got a chance to bounce from some ball security issues... but I suppose the NFL has always stood for Not For Long.

Does Heinicke deserve the start? You may as well give him the opportunity because the team screwed things up with Ridder in the same way the team screwed things up with Matt Ryan. Maybe he finds consistency he hasn’t previously in his career.

What has been the most alarming aspect of the defense getting shredded by two quarterbacks making their first appearances with their respective teams?

Allen Strk: Not having any semblance of a consistent pass rush, given the lack of edge rushing options, is understandable. Although they forced two turnovers against Minnesota, it’s reasonable why the defense has struggled to create turnovers for most of the season. What has to be considered unacceptable is the lack of attention to detail on tackling and zone coverage assignments.

After consistently making open-field tackles all season, the last two weeks have been horrendous across the board. Between Dee Alford not sacking Josh Dobbs on an unblocked blitz on a preposterous third down conversion to Kaden Elliss’ whiff on Dobbs’ 18-yard touchdown run, self-inflicted mistakes led to big plays. Not getting enough depth or knowing where safety help was coming from when playing Cover 2 cost them on multiple occasions. The Falcons’ defensive resurgence stemmed from being incredibly disciplined up front, organized on the back end, and fundamentally sound across the field. They haven’t played with any of those essential qualities to succeed over the last two weeks.

Dave Choate: The way the lack of a consistent pass rush and ability to contain scrambling quarterback has been exposed, no question.

The Falcons got four sacks, but some of those were Dobbs simply blundering into pressure early on. They still have no consistent way to generate that pressure outside of David Onyemata wrecking shop and Arnold Ebiketie, Bud Dupree, and Lorenzo Carter showing up in streaks, with Ebiketie’s upside demanding a longer look in the future. That lack of consistent pressure, unfortunately, translates into time and opportunity for quarterbacks who are increasingly punishing Atlanta for it; we’ve seen Baker Mayfield, Sam Howell, Will Levis, and now Dobbs do just that in recent weeks.

The lack of containment for scrambling quarterbacks might be an even bigger problem right now. Dobbs killed the Falcons and Kyler Murray will absolutely do so without a dedicated, fleet-footed resource to keep an eye out, and even that’s not a guaranteed stop given how effective those players are at escaping. What’s beyond clear is that a veteran group up front just isn’t fast enough to catch up with these guys when they’re wind sprinting, which means Jerry Gray and Ryan Nielsen have to take a hard look at dedicating a Richie Grant, a DeMarcco Hellams, or hell, even a Carter or Ebiketie to keeping those quarterbacks from making it to the sideline. Tackling better is also kind of important.

Cory Woodroof: The missed tackles are incredibly problematic. Busted coverages are a part of the NFL; you have to work through them as it happens. With the pass rush just not coming through this year in crunch time, the defense has to master the basic fundamentals to succeed.

Atlanta wins that Minnesota game if they wrap up better on Dobbs on his scrambles, and that might be a more alarming concern right now than the offensive problems. This defense showing regression is not what anyone wants, but sloppy tackling is a great way to accomplish that.

Aaron Freeman: In both cases, poor technique and a lack of details is the root of the issue. Against the Titans, poor coverage technique is to blame as to why so many of their receivers were able to carve up the defense for explosive plays. And poor tackling technique was most alarming against the Vikings, where Dobbs was able to hurt the Falcons with his legs more than his arm.

Matt Chambers: Alarming is a tough word here. While I think the offense has the talent to be much more productive than it has been, the defense is a bit of the opposite. I can still look at the roster and be impressed with the performances. Also, it’s important to remember that the defense is missing its top player Grady Jarrett, and is missing some speed with the injury to Troy Andersen.

As I see it, the Falcons have lacked a single competent EDGE essentially since the Jon Abraham era. The team struck out on trading for an EDGE, ahead of the trade deadline and has not put serious capital into the position under Terry Fontenot. Outside of quarterback, EDGE is probably the most important and impactful player. The Falcons are well below average at that position. Atlanta will continue to get shredded by quarterbacks until the team can find some guys who can hit those quarterbacks.

Is there a particular player that needs to elevate their game for the team to start winning games again, or does it ultimately come down to better coaching and cleaning up fundamental errors like presnap penalties and tackling?

Allen Strk: There aren’t players underperforming that warrant being singled out. As frustrating as Chris Lindstrom has been at times with pass protection breakdowns and inexplicable penalties, he’s still the driving force behind what the offensive line does. He was pivotal in the final drive, ending in a touchdown where they went run-heavy, leaning on Tyler Allgeier.

It comes down to playing collectively smarter and cleaner. There are too many moments where a blocking assignment is missed or not executed. For all the criticism directed at the coaching staff, Kyle Pitts struggled mightily trying to block in key situations. Matthew Bergeron continues to have glaring weekly errors. On defense, Jeff Okudah and Richie Grant had communication problems, ultimately leading to big plays.

The coaching staff can definitely put them in better positions to succeed and not get caught into tendencies such as dropping eight into coverage so frequently and running inside zone with Allgeier. There isn’t a single individual derailing this team with their overall performance. It comes down to the coaching staff making the necessary adjustments and players proving they learned from past mistakes.

Dave Choate: It is, maddeningly, the small stuff across the roster. Robinson has to keep a better hold on the ball, Lindstrom has to steel himself before the snap, Drew Dalman has to deliver consistently strong snaps, the defensive backs have to know their assignments well enough to avoid costly errors, and the quarterbacks have to avoid happy feet in the pocket. There are so many small things to clean up—and Arthur Smith’s red zone game-planning, which is no small thing—that naming just one is foolish. This team is sloppy and careless far too often.

It’s maddening because that means there’s no simple fix here, yet it feels like the Falcons could have a good week and figure everything out at once. There is no play-calling shift coming, no insertion in the lineup that’s going to make a massive difference for this team, and no usage that is going to magically make things better, though a focus on getting the ball into the hands of Pitts, Robinson, and London more often will help. The team just needs to do everything a little bit better and they’re probably back to winning hard-fought games, but after nine games, it’s hard to be optimistic they’ll do so.

Cory Woodroof: It’s going to have to come down to Smith and his coaching staff. The quarterback play is just what it is, and the defense has sustained some difficult injuries that haven’t helped the past two weeks. Smith must find ways to get this ground game going, control the clock, and help give the defense a break so they aren’t gassed by the fourth quarter. That had to have been a problem against the Vikings.

This is Smith’s team, and he’s responsible for finding ways to play to this roster’s strengths. The diminished run game has been the biggest disappointment of the season, but there’s still time to rectify that. There are eight games to go, four of them being in the division. They’ve just got to find ways to improve on the spot.

Aaron Freeman: Singling out one player doesn’t seem fair when it boils down to the entire team needing to step up. Even the team’s “stars” have made too many mistakes over the last few weeks. So that probably means it’s on the coaches to uplift the entire roster.

Matt Chambers: The easy answer is always coaching. Here, it is also the correct answer. Arthur Smith has a lot he needs to fix. But since I’m skeptical that can happen, let’s go with the quarterback. For whoever is starting, the team needs better, safer play with the ball.

It’ll help if Smith focuses on the run game, but whoever is throwing the ball needs to be safer and smarter with the football. I don’t need a prime Peyton Manning, but I do need a guy who can complete a 20-yard pass and not turn the ball over.