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Falcons making it clear special teams excellence will be a priority again in 2023

Three of Atlanta’s early signings and re-signings point to a team unwilling to take the third phase for granted.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

A team with flaws has to do the little things well to rack up wins. The Falcons in 2022 had a shaky defense that rarely bailed them out, streaky-at-best passing game, and a talent deficit that was more glaring some weeks than others. They made up for that with discipline, refreshingly, they were one of the least-penalized teams in the NFL—an extremely effective ground game, and their performance on special teams.

Per Football Outsiders, the Falcons were fifth in special teams DVOA or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, a metric that attempts to determine how efficient and effective teams are. The Falcons have an excellent special teams coordinator in Marquice Williams and one of the better kickers in the NFL in Younghoe Koo, but more than that, they had a great group working at the height of their powers last year. The Falcons were stingy on returns, made the most of their opportunities, and won the field position battle often enough that it helped them stay in and ultimately win games in 2022.

Unsurprisingly, the team didn’t take that for granted. Atlanta’s early signings are somewhat splashy and very encouraging for a team that finally has cap space, but there’s also been an undeniable focus on preserving the team’s strength on special teams. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen them:

  • Bring back long snapper Liam McCullough, who settled in after a shaky start to the season to deliver consistency from a spot where consistency is critical;
  • Re-sign punter Bradley Pinion, who proved to be pretty adept at pinning opposing teams deep in their own territory and did a nice job handling kickoffs last year;
  • Bring back Keith Smith, who in addition to his duties as fullback happens to be one of the team’s most consistent special teams performers and typically one of their leading tacklers;
  • Sign linebacker Tae Davis, who has primarily played special teams and fared pretty well doing so in his time in the NFL and should have a significant role there in Atlanta.

The signing of Davis in particular during a time when big-name signings are still happening across the league is an indication of how seriously the team takes their special teams success. In all likelihood, he’ll replace Nick Kwiatkoski, a veteran who played the majority of special teams snaps every week and was counted on as part of the team’s kickoff and punt coverage, and if he does so at a high level he’ll be worth every penny of his modest one-year deal. We need only to think back to the 2021 season, with its multiple ugly, game-changing long returns allowed, to understand why the Falcons aren’t going to let special teams be an afterthought.

That will continue throughout the rest of the spring. The Falcons last year added Kwiatkoski and Mike Ford with an eye on what they could offer on teams, and Davis and potential cornerback signing Mike Hughes could offer similar value in 2023. The Falcons will certainly consider whether their late round draft picks and depth signings have a track record of contributing there, and the net result of that care, plus the quality of the team’s specialists, should put them in a position to once again have one of the league’s better special teams units this coming season.

That will matter, even for a greatly improved Falcons team, because of the difference good field position for your offense and defense makes. It will matter because being able to get some points on drives, as Koo so often does, is imperative for those times when even good offenses stall out. And it will matter because complete football teams, the kind the Falcons badly want to be and we never tire of demanding, do quality work in all three phases. Expect Marquice Williams and company to once again be a major part of Atlanta’s 2023 success, whatever those heights may be.