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5 things we learned: Falcons v. Panthers part 2

The Falcons faced off against the worst team in the league and came away with the worst loss of Arthur Smith’s head coaching career.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

We already know what happened on Sunday against the previously 1-12 Carolina Panthers. There’s no way to dress up yet another ugly disaster, so let’s dive into what we learned.

We will call these some hard truths.

Arthur Smith hits rock bottom — again

Is this the worst loss by Arthur Smith in Atlanta? The bad losses are starting to all merge together. Minnesota was pretty bad. The Falcons were also outdueled by Jacksonville in pretty thorough fashion. Getting beaten up by a bad Arizona Cardinals on Kyler Murray’s first game back is demoralizing.

There were a lot of really bad losses this season. Sunday’s may be the worst of the bunch thanks to the complete incompetence of Atlanta’s offense. There’s actually plenty of consistency across most of the losses.

Today’s had it all: an offense that could never get rolling, some questionable play-calling, confusing player usage, and even a defensive collapse. All against the worst team in the league. You’d think the Falcons were playing the ‘85 Chicago Bears. Smith looks over-matched without a way out.

The offense finally slips into rhythm in 4th quarter — before the worst, most unnecessary interception imaginable

Have we talked about Drake London? Drake London went without a single target until the 3rd quarter. He went catchless until the 4th quarter. On Atlanta’s final drive, things finally started to click. Shockingly, once the offense was running through the team’s top players, good things happened. London again looks to be a true baller who will only occasionally get the ball.

London, Allgeier, even Kyle Pitts. Atlanta’s top weapons doing what they do best. Leaning into Allgeier 50 minutes into a game looks like a recipe for success, as no one wants to tackle a 220-pound bowling ball in the 4th quarter. Pitts made the most of his rare target, catching the ball short of the sticks, draped by a defender, then jumping for a first down while being tackled.

The Falcons were finally in the red zone and looking to score. Then Cordarrelle Patterson was stuffed on first down. On the following play, Ridder gets flushed, runs to his left, then throws a terrible pass across his body directly to Xavier Woods. For a pass so short, it looked like the Panthers were the intended receiver. The Falcons were on 2nd and 10 — no need to force the ball. Further, the Falcons were up 7-6. Assuming the Falcons can’t convert on third down, they go up 4 points with a field goal and force the Panthers to score a touchdown.

It’s an unforgivable, inexcusable, unnecessary pass that sank a team that needs every break it can get.

Ridder has to be out of the 2024 plans

I don’t want to call myself a Ridder defender, but I have been consistently saying we need to give Ridder more time. Quarterback development is not linear. It takes patience even when your quarterback is dealing with some bad stretches. Most importantly, you want to see that young quarterback fix old problems. And, well, realistically, work through new problems as well.

From an overly simplistic view, defenses will key in a quarterback’s biggest issues a few months of tape is available. Look at Marcus Mariota’s decent start in 2022. Defenses figured him out and he couldn’t adjust. Ridder, on that timeline now thanks in part to his sudden benching, is still playing highly inconsistent football. Ridder struggled early by playing too conservative where his short passing inefficiencies were exposed. Ridder was unable to get into a passing rhythm at all. Late in the game, soon after Ridder opened up his game and pushed the ball down the field, he also threw one of the worst interceptions imaginable. Ridder just can’t shake throwing an unnecessary interception at a time you absolutely can’t throw an interception.

It’s time to call it, whether now or after the season — Ridder can’t start for the Falcons. Ridder is probably best as a backup, but particularly if Arthur Smith stays, probably takes the blame for the 2023 season. How the Falcons find a suitable replacement is a bigger question, now that the team should be looking at its fourth starting quarterback in four seasons.

The Falcons have no identity

Sunday was ugggggglllllllllyyyyyyy football. Sure, we can caveat that with the weather, injuries, or whatever you want. But yet again the Falcons, who have invested heavily in their run game, were outran by the Panthers’ makeshift offensive line and 4th round rusher Chuba Hubbard.

Both teams are bad. We went into the game knowing that. This would have been a good opportunity for Arthur Smith to put together a decisive win. Beating up a bad team is a nice way to show you aren’t one of them. Instead, the Falcons put up 7 points in 60 terrible minutes of football.

The Falcons haven’t scored more than 28 points all season, which isn’t a big problem in October, but is a pretty big problem when Christmas is next week. That low scoring works if the Falcons were going to be one of the heaviest rushing teams in the league. Atlanta’s identity should be the run game. The pieces are there for Atlanta to be one of the best, dominant rushing offenses in the league. Yes, they were missing pieces on Sunday, but that doesn’t mean they should be this bad.

Instead, Atlanta has had a 100 yard rusher only twice this season, last on October 1st against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Looking just at Sunday’s game, Atlanta, in a one-possession game for all 60 minutes, rushed 31 times for an anemic 1.7 yards per rush. Bijan Robinson, the team’s top pick who also fumbled at a critical time, had only 8 touches.

Falcons can’t run the ball. Falcons can’t pass the ball. Falcons can’t stop the run. Three years into this regime and I don’t know what this team can do well.

Arthur Smith’s offensive aggressiveness is just silly

Years back, I criticized Dan Quinn for consistently deferring when he had one of the worst defenses in the league. In theory, an average team defers, stops the other team, gets the last drive of the half, then starts with the ball in the second half. It works great if your team is competent. For Quinn’s Falcons, it meant consistently giving up points on the first drive and playing from behind most or all of the game.

For Smith, he wants to set a tone. He does that by aggressively going for it on 4th down. 4th and 3 on the offense’s first drive on Carolina’s 34 yard line. There are a few choices here: attempt a 51 yard field goal with some potentially problematic weather; punt it and play the field position battle against a bad team; or go for it.

I’d be comfortable with the field goal risk. Putting the ball in Younghoe Koo’s hands (or feet) and going for points in a low-scoring affair is a smart move. If the Falcons were able to actually run the ball, playing the field position battle could make sense. Assuming the Falcons could control the time of possession (it can’t — a paltry 26:04 on Sunday), pin the Panthers back and rely on your defense to force a punt.

Smith, of course, ran the ball. Bijan Robinson runs immediately into traffic and the drive stalls with no points. Robinson was stuffed the play before for a loss of a yard. 4th and 3 is a pretty big distance for a run when the run game has been so inconsistent.

Maybe if the play works, the Falcons score, win the game, and we talk again about how the team plays ugly but is in the playoff race. Going aggressive doesn’t make sense when your offense isn’t working. Smith may be trying to set the tone but he is forcing the team into a bad spot.