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How Falcons can convert positionless football philosophy into consistent matchup nightmares

After assembling an offense filled with unique playmakers and massive pass-catchers, Arthur Smith is ready to produce one of the most prolific units in the league.

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Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Designing plays to produce mismatches and maximizing those mismatches for productive gains is one of the most efficient ways an offense can thrive. A combination of utilizing your personnel intelligently, understanding the opposition’s weaknesses, and dialing up the proper alignment with astute personnel movement could turn any play into a touchdown with a little luck and a lot of cleverness.

Some concepts require more patience than explosiveness. Other designs depend on playmakers being exceptional at what they do in beating the opposing defender. No matter what the circumstances are, it’s always beneficial to create a favorable mismatch for the offense to flourish and manufacture scoring drives. That’s true whether you’re loaded with talent or getting by with guile.

Arthur Smith and the Falcons front office have put together one of the most unique offenses in the league. With three top-ten picks as head coach of the Falcons, Smith and his team went against the standard grain of primarily focusing on positional value and drafted skill-position players. No avid college football watcher could have anticipated the sight of Kyle Pitts, Drake London, and Bijan Robinson being on the same team together. The front office had a clear vision of assembling a group of large, explosive, and versatile playmakers who could transform a rebuilt offense into one of the NFL’s most prolific units.

As Smith eloquently stated, players’ roles become similar to valuable chess pieces to create mismatches. They will be used in different capacities, yet provide a threat on every play regardless of where they are lined up. Only a few teams use a wide variety of personnel groupings on the Falcons’ level. Smith keeps defenses guessing with different formation packages and sets players in motion before the ball is snapped or when the ball is snapped. It forces defensive coordinators into a chess match when battling his offense.

Unlike the past two seasons, the Falcons are fully equipped for battle. Opponents will have to take into account what they have at running back, wide receiver, and tight end. There are evident questions about how the king at the quarterback position will perform due to the limited sample size from last season and the uneven start to training camp. Desmond Ridder is still in an excellent position to dismantle defenses with his array of weapons. It all starts with the two driving forces of positionless football to create mismatches.

Bijan breaks it down, with Pitts causing fits

Although the headline looks here seems awkwardly crafted, it’s accurate: The Falcons’ future success will be fueled by Robinson and Pitts. They are the two premier talents that can be the best players at their respective positions. Both can line up in different areas across various formations and provide the same type of threat that defenses will prioritize to stop. Whether it’s Robinson on the outside or Pitts in the slot, they can create mismatch and produce explosive plays in a flash.

The rookie running back has already been making waves at training camp. His jaw-dropping catch against Troy Andersen left everyone stunned. From the sharp route-running setting up to run a dig before accelerating on the go route to stretching out to make a sensational grab, it was one of those moments where the coaching staff had to take notice of the type of multi-dimensional talent they have. Lining up Robinson on the outside to force opposing linebackers into uncomfortable positions in coverage should prove to be an immediate mismatch worth targeting.

Linebackers aren’t the only players on the receiving end of Robinson’s pass-catching ability. He beat cornerback Mike Hughes with a swift release off the line of scrimmage and showcased a smooth change of direction on the route to create enough space to make the catch. Seeing Robinson already able to run crisp routes and create separation opens up exciting possibilities in knowing what the coaching staff can devise for him. He’s not simply going to catch passes off screens and check-downs. This is someone who could make multiple significant plays a game lining up on the outside or in the slot like a wide receiver and punish defenses without needing to be in the backfield.

Similar to Robinson, Pitts doesn’t need to be used like a traditional player in his position to take over games. His game isn’t suited to be an in-line tight end 15 to 20 times a game. The complete new-age tight end must be lining up on the outside, in the slot, or being used in motion to create easy-access chunk plays. Defensive coordinators will construct their game plan around containing the third-year tight end. That creates space across the field for other pass catchers to maneuver and capitalize on the attention Pitts attracts. There were instances last season where Pitts would run vertical routes to create openings for London on intermediate completions. That worked particularly well against the Saints in the season opener.

While it’s incredibly valuable to elevate players around him, Pitts is too special not to be averaging five to seven receptions per game. What he put with last season can’t be repeated ever again. On 58 of his targets, 33 pass attempts were labeled uncatchable. Watching Marcus Mariota continuously throw passes nowhere near him left everyone scratching their heads, especially considering how electrifying Pitts was in his rookie season. That makes putting in daily work with Ridder on the practice field even more crucial for the offense. They must build a strong rapport to get this offense to reach its full potential.

It may appear odd that an offense’s two top explosive pass-catching options consist of a running back and tight end. That’s what comes with building a positionless offense of playmakers. Robinson and Pitts will have their share of lining up together while transitioning from being on the outside to in the slot. Smith and the coaching staff need to find a groove to create those schemed-up openings in condensed areas such as the red zone. They must keep defenses guessing about the types of routes and natural picks they run. Doing that will set up nicely for Ridder to pounce on mismatches and relieve pressure off an intriguing starting wide receiver pairing more than capable of outmanning opposing corners.

Power receiver trip

Positionless football and formation flexibility can’t be used to describe the current starting wide receiver duo. Outside of London being used quite a bit in the slot, there isn’t much disguise to what they will provide as starters. The eighth overall pick in the 2022 draft built solid chemistry with Pitts when the Falcons’ passing game showed signs of being functional. They benefited from each other not only during the season opener but also against Los Angeles and Seattle. The way they occupy space together with long blistering strides and command attention with their large frames usually leads to one of them being in an advantageous position, and will likely often this season.

In the 11 games they played together, London only lined up in the slot six times or more in four of them, per Pro Football Focus. That total accelerated when Pitts suffered a season-ending MCL injury, including more than 11 times in the final two games. Considering his physical attributes and ball-winning capabilities in traffic, he can be an absolute nightmare for nickel corners when lining up there. What will also prove to be beneficial is his strong rapport with Ridder. They clicked instantly on the field, which is a testament to how they built their relationship off the field. Pitts and Robinson will get plenty of opportunities to operate in the shot. That said, London could establish himself as the go-to option on third downs as the team’s most consistent receiver and for his contested catch excellence.

Adding Mack Hollins into the fray made all the sense in the world, knowing Smith’s coaching philosophy. His penchant for wanting receivers with large frames to make tough catches and block in the run game was evident during his memorable tenure as offensive coordinator in Tennessee. Although London and Hollins don’t quite possess the ultra-explosive traits that A.J. Brown and Corey Davis had as a tandem, they are more than capable of being productive. Hollins’ exceptional work ethic has earned plaudits across the league. How he stretches the field is a welcoming addition for a team that doesn’t have a true deep threat on the roster.

Not every key player in an offense can have a diverse skill set. While Hollins doesn’t offer much versatility or flexibility, he brings tremendous value to the team. His run blocking could help turn ten-yard gains into forty-yard touchdowns. The overall toughness he plays with will provide a threat in condensed areas and after the catch. There will be opposing cornerbacks overwhelmed by his tenacity. His fun, competitive personality appears to be well-received by his teammates, which should bring the best out of them.

A complementary player like the former Raider could be influential in elevating the offense in the passing and running game. That indicates the type of value he offers as one of the many exciting, unique additions to the roster. There is no telling what kind of impact a player can make from only touching the ball potentially three to five times a game. Hollins isn’t the only skill position player ready to make a significant difference in a complementary role.

Dynamic veterans ready to top things off

Nobody exemplifies positionless football more than Cordarelle Patterson. To be drafted as a wide receiver and then transition into becoming an all-time great returner, followed by becoming a power running back prospering between the tackles in a decade is extraordinary. When the ball is in Patterson’s hands, expectations always rise. A broken tackle or two is likely to occur. Finishing the play violently or making a defender miss is another aspect of his greatness.

Although his role will be reduced this season, the coaching staff will ensure he’s involved. Smith is the coach who ultimately unlocked the hidden remarkable talents of Atlanta’s people’s champ. Running reverses or jet sweeps with Robinson as a decoy or ball carrier could result in huge gains. Jailbreak screens have been a solid resource in the past for Patterson to get loose in the open field. With Tyler Allgeier commanding a sizable role in the backfield alongside Robinson, Patterson may shift towards becoming a gadget player in this suddenly crowded offense. That could make him even more threatening as he’ll enter games fresher and won’t have to be concerned about wearing down from heavy usage.

Screens played a major role in Jonnu Smith’s success in Tennesee. Arthur Smith recognized what he could with the ball in his hands. By being an above-average blocker and dangerous after the catch, the versatile tight end earned his place on the field, lining up in different spots across power formations and spread-out sets. His unique skill set even resulted in being used as a ball carrier out of the backfield. Jonnu Smith will have some games where he is a non-factor, but his potential impact can’t be discounted as a true X-Factor with what he offers as a receiver, blocker, and runner. His presence should allow Pitts to be used even more as a receiver to keep the chains moving. Using 23 personnel with Robinson, Patterson, Pitts, Smith, and either Parker Hesse or MyCole Pruitt is another exciting element for the offense to be creative and exploit mismatches.

For all the exciting young rising stars on the roster, pivotal games can be won because of these two crafty veterans. They know opportunities will be limited, yet both players are more than capable of changing the course of a game in one moment. That moment could come from running the ball, picking up a massive gain after the catch, or playing a key supporting role on a touchdown.

What they can do sums up what makes the Falcons’ offense so unique and potentially special. They are two players in an offense filled with players who can make a difference in multiple ways by lining up from different areas. They can take the pressure off the stars of the offense. They can make highlight-reel plays. Most of all, they can create mismatches in an offense that will be attacking defenses with its flexibility and unpredictability as often as possible.