In an interview with The Athletic‘s Jeff Schultz, Arthur Smith went into detail about the nuances of his offense and even cracked a joke or two showing his personal side, which I think Falcons fans are going to love. Smith’s entire offensive identity is built around putting pressure on defenses, constantly creating conflict through personnel groupings, motion, and formations in his wide zone scheme.
The interview began with a glaring showcase of Smith’s genuine respect for everyone in the league as he refused to review any film from the past regime because even though he could, he didn’t want to be critical of any formers Falcons coaches, players, or executives. An expert on the game’s X’s and O’s, the former North Carolina offensive lineman learned how to watch film in college and remembers being accosted as a freshman by his line coaches.
“That’s the best thing about an O-lineman,” he said. “You get called fat, dumb and stupid so many times that after a while it doesn’t matter what happens out there. It prepares you for the job. All of these quarterbacks, they get sensitive. They get a little bit of criticism from you or someone on the internet, and they want to go and cry.”
Smith hadn’t provided any insights into his offense yet and had already made me a believer by just being a likable man. He also noted that offensive lineman are the most enjoyable off the field, “They’re also usually the best guys to hang out with and socialize. They may not be the best-looking guys, but if you want to go out to party, you’re going to have the best time.”
Finally getting into his philosophy on the field, Smith stated something that seems like it should be a standard concept in every offense at any level: balance, “It doesn’t mean we have to have 50 percent runs and 50 percent pass plays. It just means you want to keep defenses off balance. You don’t want to become obvious. Yeah, we’re going to run the football, and we’re going to throw play-action at you. But if you’re sitting up there (in the box) and you know what’s coming, then shame on us.”
To accomplish this balance, Smith deploys both run and pass plays from the same formation with the same pre-snap motion to window dress different plays identically. Last year, the Titans ran 49% of their pass plays out of 1-1 personnel and 30% out of 1-2 personal — 80% of pass plays out of two personnel groupings. The balance doesn’t stop there, 40% of all Tennessee’s plays last year came out of 1-1 personal, and 33% came out of 1-2 personal — three-quarters of the playbook out of just two personnel groupings.
Smith establishes the run and then works passing concepts off boot action, jet sweeps, and pre-snap motion by pressuring the defense with any one of the tight ends, wide receivers, or running backs as threats to receive the ball on any given play in any formation. An innovative play-caller like Smith uses a wide variety of motions in tight and bunch sets, an effective use of space that causes traffic and confusion, resulting in receivers running wide open — scheming receivers open instead of relying on them to win one-on-ones.
The personnel groupings rarely change, but the formations are ever-changing. Tweaking alignments and formations but running the same wide zone concept is what keeps defenses off balance, but that doesn’t stop Smith from throwing out a wildcat formation every now and then as he did in the overtime game this past year against the division rival Houston Texans, “We came with a random personnel group and went wildcat,” he said. “You’re thinking, ‘They’re not going to be ready for it,’ and they weren’t. Look at them scrambling to get down there to get to Tannehill. You’ve got a lot of conflict, a misfit, and now here comes the freight train (Henry) running downhill. Game over.” It’s all about controlled chaos.
The Falcons have the personnel to make the playoffs, and Smith has been objective when analyzing the roster he inherited, “I’m trying to get a feel for who they are instead of passing judgment or thinking, ‘This is what I would’ve done,’” he said. “I’ve had a pretty neutral mindset.” He points to constant preparedness and education as the subtle differences between what was and what will be.
The 2021 Falcons will not be scrambling in late-game situations — a welcomed sight for Falcons fans. There is an aurora around Smith; he’s a real football guy who is obsessed with the game and how to better prepare himself and his team to win. The Fontenot-Smith era has officially begun, and I couldn’t be more excited to see what the pair do in the coming years.