Well, here we are.
The excitement has been slowly building throughout a seemingly endless offseason, but the Atlanta Falcons will take the field for a meaningful game this weekend.
When Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot first arrived, it was clear that they’d likely not be able to make a substantial investment in a roster overhaul until Year 3 due to the Falcons’ poor cap health at the time. Defensively, we saw as close to an overhaul as you’ll get in a single offseason over these past several months. Offensively, the overhaul has been a bit more meticulous and metered out, but this is a new Falcons team in nearly every way.
And it’s one fans should be confident in come this season.
Let’s start with the defense. Ryan Nielsen and Jerry Gray have put their stamp on this unit in just a few months, adding size in the trenches and an aggressive mindset in the secondary. In life-of-contract money, the Falcons spent $137.5 million on their top defensive free agents, a group that includes Jessie Bates, David Onyemata, Kaden Elliss and Calais Campbell. They also traded for the final year of Jeff Okudah’s contract, adding the third-overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft at an excellent value.
Atlanta’s pass-rush woes are well known by now; the Falcons’ 39 sacks the last two years are the fewest in the league by a wide margin. Enter Nielsen, whose defensive lines in New Orleans had no fewer than 42 sacks in any of his six seasons with the team. The size and physicality Atlanta added to its defensive line is no joke, and will force the offense to pay them outsized attention, which is where things get fun.
Elliss recorded 78 tackles and seven sacks for the Saints last season, fully qualifying as a breakout year. It was also Elliss’s first season playing a substantial role, so there’s hope that the 28-year-old linebacker can build on that performance and add to the Falcons’ pass rush. His presence here is an indicator that Atlanta will bring players from all over the place – and the team’s showing of tight man coverage this preseason potentially makes the secondary a key part of that as well.
“Attack.” “Aggressive.” Those are the two words echoing in the minds of the Falcons’ defenders, and they are the ones most often repeated back to me in interviews. This defense wants to impose its will, and that style was apparent in the preseason. The competition in training camp was real at multiple spots on defense, and that speaks to the depth they’ve cultivated.
This group has a chance to be among the league’s biggest surprises.
Offensively, the Falcons begin presenting problems for opposing teams before they’ve even suited up for a practice. Smith’s unit is creating a brand of football that breaks traditional NFL terminology and makes pre-scouting a nightmare.
Take Jonnu Smith – not even among Atlanta’s top five weapons – as an example. On three consecutive plays, he could conceivably act as a tight end, a running back and a boundary receiver. How do you accurately describe those personnel groupings? Is it based on post-snap role or pre-snap alignment? Even small amounts of time spent on questions like these can add up, and an error can potentially lead to bigger issues down the line.
The situation above isn’t going to create some magical formula that ends in a 17-0 season, but it is a fun example of how the inventiveness of Atlanta’s offense has benefits beyond what we see on Sunday.
Cordarrelle Patterson may be the one officially listed as “Joker,” but that’s a term that could apply to nearly every offensive player. Kyle Pitts, Drake London and Mack Hollins are interchangeable as blockers and receivers – to varying degrees, of course – making this chameleon offense possible.
The addition of Bijan Robinson puts the offense on roller skates. In an offense that moves the line of scrimmage as well as this one, Robinson’s blend of instinctual vision, in-hole burst and elite tackle-breaking make him a threat to create a big play at any moment. Tyler Allgeier tied for 11th among all running backs with 4.9 yards per carry as a rookie, and it’s reasonable to think he could become more effective even if his role shrinks. That’s to say nothing of what he showed last year in pass protection or as a receiver. Allgeier will remain a valuable part of this offense.
Because Atlanta can conceivably do so many things once the ball is snapped, it actually doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel in what it does. There are variations, upon variations to plays that are ultimately bread-and-butter staples the team can execute at a high level. As Nate Tice recently put it, the Falcons are very good at splashing the water.
Nevertheless, once the water settles Atlanta hopes to flood defenses with playmakers—something we haven’t been able to say with this much confidence under Smith before.
It’s at this point I get to the Desmond Ridder of it all. The close we get to the start of the season, the more I feel confident that Ridder will surprise a majority of people. Call it the mounting optimism of the summer going to my head, but I think Ridder – much like Robinson – is in the right offense to succeed.
He is a decisive player who has a command of Smith’s complicated offense. The Falcons intentionally made camp hard for their second-year quarterback, and Smith said he felt “pretty pleased” about how Ridder fared through it all. On the field, Ridder’s athleticism could be the true x-factor for this offense. It’s hard to imagine we won’t see at least one first-down scramble during long drives.
Ridder may not be asked to do too much early on, but he is good enough to thrive in the spots Smith does pick for him. How impactful those spots are will come down to Ridder.
Under Smith, the Falcons have done an excellent job in the areas that indicate quality programs. They were the least-penalized team in the league last season. They earned a 90.3 special teams grade from Pro Football Focus, which ranked fourth. Against a diverse set of opponents, Atlanta often kept games close.
Despite my laptop's best attempts, I sat down with @Nate_Tice last week, and it was awesome! This was truly a masterclass on how to watch Atlanta's offense this season.— Will McFadden (@willmcfadden) September 5, 2023
With back-to-back 7-10 records, Smith has proven he can maximize the resources he has to work with. Now that he’s been able to hand-pick some of those resources, his impact can be further magnified.
The Falcons have undergone a systemic overhaul these last three offseasons, and it’s led them to this: An attacking defense that has the physicality to overwhelm opponents up front, and an offense that is sound, versatile and – hopefully now – explosive.
The wait is over; it’s time to see what this group can do. I, for one, could not be more excited.