Falcons: Measuring Arthur Smith’s Titans against his new team

titans

The Falcons have different strengths and weaknesses than the Titans do, but we can compare the personnel of each to get a good idea of what Arthur Smith will be working with going from Tennessee to Atlanta. In 2019, as a first-time offensive coordinator, the Titans ranked first in the NFL in red-zone efficiency — the highest since the 2013 Denver Broncos (76.1) — at 75.6 percent, third in rushing offense (138.9 yards per game), and fourth in yards per play (6.12). Smith oversaw an offense in 2020 that produced the second-most total yards per game, which can be mainly attributed to 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry.

Ryan Tannehill is the other integral part of what made the Titans’ offense go, and Smith contributed heavily to him becoming Comeback Player of the Year a season ago — leading the league with a 117.5 passer rating. Tannehill went from being labeled a bust in Miami with Adam Gase to one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the league the last two seasons under Smith as he threw for 33 touchdowns and only seven interceptions this season. But what exactly does the Atlanta offense have that the Smith-Tennessee offense doesn’t, and vice-versa.

We will be directly comparing the roster for the Falcons as it stands today and the starting lineup of the Titans from 2020

Quarterback

Smith got the absolute most out of Tannehill the last two seasons, playing in 28 games under him. In those games, the former Texas A&M Aggie completed better than 67% of his passes for 6,561 yards with 55 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Matt Ryan had a down year by his standards but still threw for 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions on 65% of passes. The most notable difference in their seasons was the efficiency between the two. Tannehill attempted almost 150 fewer passes than Ryan and had an 8.7 AY/A compared to Ryan’s 7.4 AY/A.

Tannehill was a product of Tennessee’s system, but that isn’t taking anything away from him because he was incredibly efficient in Smith’s offense. Ryan’s system with Dirk Koetter calling and designing was in every way inferior to Smith’s, expect Ryan to have similar improvements in efficiency — particularly his number of attempts dropping.

Running Back(s)

This doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the Falcons don’t have anyone even close to Henry, who has led the league in rushing each of the last two seasons with Smith running the offense. The former Alabama running back carried a league-high 303 times for a league-high 1,540 yards and a league-high 16 touchdowns in 2019, then carried a league-high 378 times for a league-high 2,027 yards and a league-high 17 touchdowns in 2020. While Smith has said the team plans to use a running back by committee approach, the backs in Atlanta combined for just 1,532 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2020 on 31 more carries than Henry.

Despite this massive gap in talent, running back is one of the easiest positions to get production from rookies. Expect a stable of running backs to get an opportunity to carry the rock this season, and at least one of them to break out into a featured role by season’s end. I can all but guarantee that Herny’s numbers will dip with Smith’s departure. Before Smith (2016-2018), Henry carried the ball over 500 times for 2,293 yards (4.6 YPC) and 22 touchdowns compared to his 681 carries for 3,567 yards (5.2) and 33 touchdowns. Who made who?

Wide Reciever(s)

A.J. Brown and Corey Davis are two of the better young receiver duos in the league. Both are coming off of career years, which is no surprise as the Titans offense was one of the best in 2020. The former Ole Miss Rebel recorded 70 catches for over 1,000 yards scoring 11 touchdowns in 14 games. The former Wyoming Cowboy had the best season of his career with 65 catches for 984 yards and five scores. The two benefited greatly from the play-action game as defenses loaded the box to stop Henry, but don’t get it twisted; the Titans’ duo isn’t even in the same conversation as Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.

Ridley was a second-team All-Pro this past year and is undoubtedly better than Brown and Davis, while Julio is unquestionably better than Ridley. It isn’t even close, and I expect an equal leap in production from Julio and Ridley as Matty Ice.

Tight End(s)

Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firsker were the primary tight ends in Smith’s offense; 38% of the Titans’ play calls came out of a formation with at least two tight ends — 33% with two, 5% with three. According to PFF, “Over the last two years, Smith ranks sixth in receiving grade, third in yards after the catch per reception (6.8) and sixth in broken tackles (17).” He’s a true threat every time he gets the ball in his hands, but his counter-part, not so much.

Firkser was the Titans’ fourth-leading receiver in 2020 with 39 receptions for 387 yards and isn’t even close to Smith in athletic ability. His offensive coordinator’s ability to understand what he could and couldn’t do and then maximize his production is impressive as Firkser isn’t the fastest or the biggest or the strongest at the position, but he was 23rd among all NFL tight ends in receptions and 26th in receiving yards.

Hayden Hurst’s natural abilities are somewhere in between Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firkser, closer to Smith than Firkser, though. Much like the other Falcons in this article, Hurst will greatly benefit from Arthur Smith’s scheme. Expect an increase in production in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. The former South Carolina Gamecock finished the season with 56 catches, 571 yards, and six touchdowns. Often split out as a receiver, he caught the third-most passes on the roster and accounted for the fourth-most receiving yards. Now, in his second year with Ryan, he will look to build even more chemistry and surely be an important piece of this offense in 2021.

Hurst is a receiving tight end, but he is a very willing blocker in the run game. His technique needs refining, but his new head coach is exactly the person who can help him.

Offensive Line

The Titans offensive line struggled with injuries to Taylor Lewan and losing Jack Conklin in free agency, but going off the starters from the first game, Tennessee’s line was a much better run-blocking than a pass-blocking group. According to PFF, there was not a single starter on the Tennessee offensive line that recorded a higher pass-blocking than run-blocking grade. The Falcons have an eerily similar offensive line, talent-wise.

Jake Matthews is incredibly reliable and would’ve been one of the better linemen on the Titans’ roster, while Chris Lindstrom and Roger Saffold are the two elite players on each team — effectively canceling each other. Matt Hennessey struggled in pass protection but performed as well as Ben Jones in terms of run-blocking. Nate Davis would essentially be whoever the Falcons select in the draft to start opposite Lindstrom, making me think the Falcons offensive line is just barely inferior to the Titans’ healthy offensive line.

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