Following Super Bowl 51, the Falcons became the butt of every NFL fans’ jokes. Things only worsened after Kyle Shanahan and Steve Sarkisian left, and the Falcons began embarrassing themself on an almost weekly basis under Dan Quinn and Dirk Koetter. Even when Raheem Morris was brought in to replace Quinn, the Falcons still had some black eyes on occasion by fumbling away winnable games. Here’s what Atlanta can do differently under Arthur Smith in 2021 to purge the narrative that was established under Quinn.
Establishing the Run
I’ll dive into this a little bit more later, but good teams run the ball effectively. You don’t have to have some elite, highly paid running back to do it either. Winning organizations typically don’t pay running backs, but teams like the 49ers, Chiefs, and Bills get production from a stable of backs and wide receivers carrying the ball in creative ways without an elite running back.
The Falcons can follow this blueprint. While Arthur Smith doesn’t have his Derrick Henry, running the ball comes down to the line of scrimmage, coaching, and effective playcalling. When you can create that balance on offense, things get a whole lot easier for the passing game and the defense. The Falcons haven’t seen that balance since 2017.
Look, the Falcons have a LOT of things they can fix on defense, mainly against the pass. They were pretty average against the run, but we saw the personnel improve under Raheem Morris without any drastic changes. I figured I would stick with just one area of the defense. The Falcons actually had a positive turnover margin in 2020, but it never felt like those big plays came at opportunistic times. If you recall, against Dallas, the Falcons were forcing turnovers early and often before… you know.
I think Atlanta posting a +3 turnover differential can primarily be attributed to conservative playcalling and the offense taking care of the ball. That makes +3 sound a whole lot worse. In 2019, the Falcons were -5 and were tied for the 6th worst differential in the league. It’s pretty simple, Atlanta’s defense has to come away with the football in big moments to help stave off opposing teams making a run at the lead.
This wasn’t always an issue in Atlanta, as Kyle Shanahan had the 2016 Falcons playing as one of the top offensive teams in NFL history. While Steve Sarkisian wasn’t perfect, he caught way too much blame from Falcons fans because he wasn’t Kyle Shanahan. The defense has always held this team back, but it’s no secret that Dirk Koetter’s vanilla brand of playcalling led to this team going 4-12 in 2020. He rarely used any pre-snap motion, almost always passed on first down, and hardly ever ran the ball.
While the Falcons were largely effective in passing the ball, that was a result of Matt Ryan and his playmakers. Koetter’s route designs were often lazy, and they resulted in a lot of punts and turnovers — especially towards the end of games. When there is no running game established, play-action becomes ineffective, and defenders can cheat against the pass.
The Falcons brought in Arthur Smith to remedy this; he was fantastic in Tennessee, and on top of his general football IQ, he knows how to get his best players involved and create a scheme around the talent that he has. While there is no Derrick Henry on the Falcons, they do have one of the most talented groups of skill position players in the NFL, an experienced quarterback with an MVP under his belt, and solid enough options to carry the ball. I fully expect this Falcons offense to maintain more drives this season, which logically should result in more wins and fewer leads blown.