As Arthur Smith often points out after Falcons games, especially after a loss, it’s the coaching staff’s job to correct the mistakes that threaten the team’s ability to win. He usually likes to add a little addendum to the end of those statements: “And we will.”
Week 15 was the clearest sign yet that this team and coaching staff have failed to fulfill that promise, and Sunday’s 9-7 loss will likely represent the final nail in the Falcons’ playoff hopes. They had the easiest schedule in the league, a very manageable division and a defense that has surpassed its preseason expectations by a mile.
Make no mistake, this is the lowest point of Smith’s tenure here. At this point, the possibility that this is Smith’s final season with the Atlanta Falcons feels more likely than ever before. Retaining his position will depend on his ability to convince ownership that he and his staff can do what they haven’t been able to do this season—make the necessary corrections.
Let’s start with the bad, today.
Readers of this series know that I refrain from applying this framework to the coaching staff because it’s much harder to judge an individual coach on game day than a player—even when it’s not all that hard. However, this is an easy one.
There is a loud and growing contingent that was ready for Smith to be gone several weeks ago, and the external pressure has reached a fever pitch now. While I’m ready to accept the difficulties of playing in a downpour, dealing with injuries and turnovers beyond a coach’s control as valid excuses for Smith and yesterday’s outcome, he’s running out of time. It’s ultimately the head coach’s job to make everything run smoothly, and there’s nothing smooth about this Falcons team.
To make matters worse for Smith, it’s his side of the ball that has been as underwhelming this season as the defense has been a pleasant surprise. The Panthers have a good defense; they are not the Legion of Boom. Atlanta plays to the level of its opponent every week, which falls on leadership.
The team’s failure to execute on offense may be Smith’s responsibility, but it’s Ridder’s doing. During his time behind center, the Falcons have been inconsistent and prone to long droughts of success. It was a common talking point this summer that Ridder just needed to be league-average for the Falcons to make a jump this season.
At this point, it’s not even clear that he’s better than Marcus Mariota. The moments we point to in defense of Ridder are usually 8-yard scrambles for a first down or a 17-yard pass downfield that was thrown with anticipation. His bad moments usually cost Atlanta the game. That’s not an even tradeoff, and Sunday was the most glaring example of this imbalance.
Ridder makes the mistakes of a gunslinger without any of the upside. There aren’t 56-yard touchdowns on this offense. He’s not willing this team single-handedly on a drive. He has 16 starts under his belt, which is a big enough sample size for an evaluation. Ridder can play football in this league, no doubt. But he’s not winning games, and he’s making the plays that lose them.
We don’t need to spend too much time here, because Robinson is a rookie and mistakes do happen even with the best players. But Robinson now has three fumbles on the season, which is the most among running backs. Like Ridder, his fumbles have been extra costly. All three have occurred deep in Atlanta territory. Against the Vikings, it allowed Minnesota to tie the game late and eventually win. Against Houston and Carolina, it led to three points for the opposing team. When the margins are as razor-thin as they have been this year, these mistakes are so impactful.
He had one of his best games as a Falcon and moved to 35th on the all-time career sack list. Campbell had another sack wiped away due to a penalty, and he was also seriously impactful as a run defender. The long-time veteran did about everything he could to win Sunday’s game, and it was very nearly enough. It’s a huge shame that this might be Campbell’s only season in Atlanta, and it’s amounted to this.
This was Harrison’s best game as a Falcon, and that’s a great sign. Harrison has shown the ability to be coachable, working with Ryan Nielsen before games or sitting with players like Campbell afterward to review what he saw. On Sunday, we saw the physical side of his game show up. He recorded his first career sack on a nice little open-field tackle and made another big short-yardage stop near the goal line.
First career sack for Zach Harrison!— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) December 17, 2023
FOX | NFL+ pic.twitter.com/Jr1owkDJc3
It was good to see Landman back in action and back to his usual self. He took advantage of Campbell’s physicality early in the game to slam the door shut on a Chuba Hubbard fourth-down run, and he didn’t slow down from there. Landman finished second on the team with eight tackles and is one of the clear positives from the season, as a whole.
Do you have any shoutouts or callouts from Sunday’s game? Let us know in the comments.