The Falcons lost in a blowout to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, 48-17, giving them a 7-10 record to end the season for the third year in a row. There’s really no point in talking about the specifics of this game, but it provided a great platform to talk about the state of the franchise and the biggest issues the Falcons face.
So, enough of a preamble.
This game proved why Arthur Smith deserves another chance
In my mind, it seemed absolutely impossible that one game would allow us to arrive at a conclusion about Arthur Smith’s future. I was mistaken, this game proved without a doubt that he should be back in 2024.
The Falcons looked sharp to start the game, offensively. They covered 94 yards in seven plays thanks in part to a nicely designed leak concept that got Scotty Miller wide open down the left sideline. Desmond Ridder’s 71-yard touchdown pass to Bijan Robinson had less to do with scheme and more about how Smith’s offense is intended to be operated.
As it was for periods with Taylor Heinicke, the offense looked decisive and intentional. Ridder was either hitting a primary read downfield or he was quick to find a checkdown option in the flat. When the quarterback play supported the offensive design, everything hummed.
But, we all knew there was another shoe waiting up there somewhere. Ridder’s mistakes have been difficult to overcome all season long, and they were once again on Sunday. He wasn’t the only play to make mistakes, though. There were a few costly penalties and a snap that Ridder wasn’t ready for. None of those are things that a coach can control once a game is underway.
It’s on a coach to make corrections to those problems and continue to help the team improve throughout the year. Many of Atlanta’s problems at various points of the season—first-quarter scoring, pre-snap penalties, poor field position, missed tackles—were corrected to some degree. The only thing that consistently plagued the Falcons this year was quarterback play.
Smith deserves his share of the blame for getting it wrong with Ridder and the plan at quarterback for 2023. However, there’s a lot to like about what Smith brings to the table, and we saw what that looked like for the first half of today’s game.
Very rarely is an issue brought to light so clearly and starkly as the quarterback play for Atlanta in this game. It’s why Smith should get a chance to get that position right, because everything else can work around it at a high level. We’ve seen it.
A missed fourth-down: The season in a nutshell
Down 31-17 and facing a very loud and hostile crowd, the Falcons put together their best drive of the game. It covered 73 yards in 14 plays, including a critical 21-yard catch by Drake London on third down and a nicely designed pitch play to Robinson for another first down. It resulted in zero points for the Falcons.
The gotta-have-it drive went all the way to the 1-yard line of the Saints, and it amounted to nothing. The Falcons tried to get the ball across the goal line on the ground, running it twice and using a really cool shovel pass design, but they failed. On fourth down, they turned to Ridder, and gave him a very easy option: Robinson in the left flat.
If you rewatch the lead-up to this play, you’ll notice that New Orleans’ secondary is already a little confused on the side the Falcons are targeting. Then, Robinson gets motioned over. The advantage is so clearly in Atlanta’s favor, that when the ball was snapped the only clear spot to go is in Robinson’s direction. He’s there and wide open. Ridder puts the ball behind him and so far out of the strike zone that it could have been intercepted.
It was there, and it was missed.
Atlanta’s offense started red-hot on the road
Desmond Ridder started this game hotter than the atomic bomb explosion in Oppenheimer. He completed his first five passes of the game for 157 yards and two touchdowns, helping the Falcons race out to a 14-7 lead. Ridder finished the first half 14-of-16 for 231 yards and two touchdowns, looking much more decisive in his return to the starting lineup.
Bijan Robinson provided the biggest highlight for Atlanta’s offense in the first half, catching a pass from Ridder that just snuck past the defender and outrunning New Orleans’ defense the rest of the way for a 71-yard touchdown. He and Scotty Miller, who had a 56-yard catch on the opening drive, provided the explosive plays through the air in the first half. Jonnu Smith caught a touchdown pass on the Falcons’ first drive, and Kyle Pitts made a big sideline catch on the final drive of the half.
Bijan Robinson reached a top speed of 20.70 mph on his 71-yard TD reception from Desmond Ridder, Robinson's fastest speed of his career.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 7, 2024
Yards After Catch: 67
YAC Over Expected: +60#ATLvsNO | #DirtyBirds pic.twitter.com/GRm0sGpcvj
The Falcons did stall for a little bit in the second half after a penalty prompted one three-and-out, and a conservative approach back up at the goal line led to another. But Atlanta looked more explosive and intentional in the first half of this game than they have most of the year.
The start of the second half was a different story
Aaaaaand, there it was. The reason Ridder never fully wrapped his arms around the starting role for this franchise; he can’t avoid the face-palm-inducing turnover. After leading a nice drive to tie the game heading into halftime, Ridder led the offense back onto the field with the opportunity to recapture the lead to start the second half. On third down, Ridder patted the ball twice before firing a pass right into the lap of Saints cornerback Alontae Taylor.
The Falcons began the second half from their 25-yard line. Two plays later, the Saints’ offense took over at the same spot on the field. One play after that, Chris Olave celebrated a 26-yard touchdown with his teammates. A 17-17 tie with the offense on the field turned into a 24-17 deficit in the blink of an eye.
It was a clear example of the frustrations with Atlanta’s offense this season—they can’t stay clean for long. Too often, the problem has been at the quarterback position, and it’s why Ridder only became starter after Taylor Heinicke was declared inactive after testing an ankle injury during warmups. The mistakes are often critical and the kind you can sense coming around the corner. That’s a tough place to be, but we already knew that.