Given all the high-profile acquisitions and the selection of everyone’s new favorite running back, it’s understandable how some new players on the Falcons’ roster can be overlooked. A team once in dire need of talent has suddenly become a well-rounded balance between prolific young talent and proven dependable veterans.
Although they certainly have their share of flaws, particularly at the most indefensible position in the sport, this team is proving they can win hard-fought games led by an array of uniquely talented, hard-nosed players.
Mack Hollins and Jonnu Smith have both experienced difficult seasons in their respective careers. They were doubted. They were dismissed after not meeting expectations placed upon them. They’ve also had seasons where they flourished and developed into valuable offensive weapons. It must be emphasized that both players impact the game beyond catching the ball, which is part of the reason they’re in Atlanta this season.
In Jonnu Smith’s case, considering his experience of running jet sweeps and stretch plays as a ball carrier, he doesn’t need the ball to make a notable difference to help a team win close games. Both players excel at what Arthur Smith requires from his pass catchers. They are willingly physical, intelligent blockers.
Getting Gritty in Crunch Time
With Bijan Robinson already taking the league by storm with his electrifying running style, there are moments where the blocking must be acknowledged. It doesn’t always happen upfront. The superb blocks could occur on the perimeter. That was especially the case with Arthur Smith’s aggressive approach to go for it on several fourth downs, even if it meant possibly losing his mind in the process of doing it, judging from looking at his facial expressions.
Jonnu Smith and Hollins both shined as blockers when it mattered most. On 4th and inches with nearly two minutes remaining, facing a two-point deficit, a toss to the right was called for Robinson. It’s a play that previously worked smoothly to convert on 4th and short.
They went to it again with the two veterans alongside Drake London to be the primary blockers. Hollins was tasked with pinning Rashan Gray, which is a tough ask given how explosive the edge rusher’s first step is and how much ferocity he plays with. Smith had to provide some support and pick up a swarming Darnell Savage coming in unblocked downhill.
Both players handled those respective challenges like the battle-tested veterans that they are. As Smith does enough to push Savage away from Robinson, the rookie phenom picked up a first down without any resistance. That conversion put the Falcons in pole position to complete a terrific comeback after falling behind 24-12.
Despite trailing by double-digits, the team never looked despondent. Players remained enthusiastic and supportive of one another. As much as the franchise has been rebuilding the roster and searching for young talent over the past few seasons, they understand the importance of needing veterans in the locker room to help battle through adversity to win close games, especially with a quarterback who only started four games last season. Players like Hollins and Smith made a tremendous difference to help them defeat one of the NFC’s better teams.
Security with the Big Play Ability
It wasn’t all blocking, of course. The veteran additions combined to catch seven passes for 107 yards, too.
Hollins is known for making acrobatic downfield catches in narrow areas. His knack for contested catches was one of the catalysts for his breakout season in Las Vegas. Although he should have had two highlight-reel moments, which Arthur Smith wisely did not weigh in on, let’s not ever speak on the dreadful ruling of Hollins being robbed of a remarkable touchdown. The savvy receiver wasn’t to be denied a 45-yard catch on a clever double-reserve flea flicker. How he leaped over Savage to win at the catch point at that moment showcased how much of a tone-setter he can be for the offense.
Setting the tone is what Jonnu Smith accomplished at the end of the first half. A terrific catch across the middle of the field put the Falcons near the goal line, following two frustrating drives where the Falcons left points on the table. It was one of Desmond Ridder’s best passes in the game, as he hit Smith right by his backside shoulder in a condensed area where Savage couldn’t make a play on the ball.
The former Titan was emotional and started getting everyone fired up. On the next play, Ridder connected with London on a much-needed three-yard touchdown off a sprint left. Considering how rattled Ridder looked at times in the first half, he needed those two plays to regain some confidence after nearly throwing a potential pick-six to Jaire Alexander.
Smith made multiple big plays as a pass catcher, including a 17-yard catch on third and seven. It was another one of those completions that provided relief to a passing game that couldn’t have looked more disoriented on opening day. They also dialed up a well-timed screen for him, gaining 14 yards.
Those screens were one of the many formulas to success for Tennessee’s offense during their memorable run in 2019 and 2020. As the fiery Falcons’ head coach said in his postgame press conference, Smith is another weapon who is hard to tackle. His presence allows the coaching staff to be more versatile with their formations and personnel bunch sets.
The Falcons were an appalling two for ten on third down against Carolina, with one of those conversions coming from Robinson’s superhuman touchdown. They improved to a respectable six for fifteen thanks to an improved aerial attack led by London and their two new veteran playmakers. It will take a collective effort to not only improve on converting in those scenarios, but to give Ridder more high-percentage looks.
There is no denying how uneasily the season has begun for him. If Hollins and Smith continue to be dependable contributors, it will provide the young quarterback with more assurances to make the correct read and keep defenses honest. As outstanding as the running game is, the Falcons know they can’t afford to fall into being completely one-dimensional. Last Sunday’s win could prove to be a blueprint for how this offense can begin to operate into becoming a truly balanced, dynamic unit.