After what many viewed as a promising season for a rebuilt Atlanta Falcons team, a recent 0-2 slide cast doubts over many supporters. It has also caused many to cast blame on the offense, most notably on young quarterback Desmond Ridder. Two things that haven’t disappointed are star running back Bijan Robinson and the retooled defense led by new Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen.
So, no, things haven’t been all bad, and 2-2 is a far cry from failure. The team is back at .500 and has a chance to capitalize on their situation and still produce a winning season. The Falcons will need a much more convincing second quarter to give fans hope they can do it. But before we get there, let’s look back at the first quarter of the season with our Falcons season review.
Falcons First Quarter Season Review
It has not been a clean start for the rookie, and that’s been the biggest issue with his play. After four weeks, Ridder leads the league in turnover-worthy plays with 10, and also leads in rate at 6.6%, per PFF. What’s alarming is these plays are starting to translate into turnovers. Ridder has thrown three interceptions, two of which have come while he’s been kept completely clean.
Ridder also habitually leaves opportunities on the table for more difficult throws or isn’t throwing them all together.
And while the Falcons did start 2-0, it was not due to the play of the quarterback. However, Ridder showed flashes in the second half — and mainly 4th quarters — of those games to secure the wins, posting a combined 4th quarter stat line of 12/15, 205, and 1 TD (rushing). Yes, many passes were dump-offs to playmakers, but those are the plays Ridder has to hit consistently.
Arthur Smith & Co.
It takes some [redacted] to go through with the plan to support Desmond Ridder as QB1, and if we’re being honest, Arthur Smith could have done a better job of that this season. While concerns have reached ‘hot seat’ level by some fans, this is premature based on quarterback play. Regardless, Smith needs to step up.
The wide receiver group comprises contested catch players and a hobbled Kyle Pitts. I understand Smith is only playing the cards he has, but try playing your Scotty Miller one a bit more and your Jonnu Smith one less. Spacing has become a prominent issue, and the route concepts sometimes leave many questioning the coach’s ability to scheme a passing game.
The overuse of 13 personnel and 2-man route concepts has puzzled fans and analysts. I’m also having trouble wrapping my head around the Keith Smith 22 personnel looks. Luckily, Bijan Robinson has been nothing short of sensational, and is at the front of the ROTY race.
Smith is getting held back, but needs to break some of his habits (the man loves stick more than a dog); if he wants to keep his young quarterback from flaming out before the bye week. He must give Ridder as many opportunities to succeed as possible. Implementing more flood concepts, running more 12 personnel and fewer 13, and deploying Scotty Miller as a decoy would be great ways to start.
The offensive line must also ensure the Ridder has opportunities to get the ball off. After an embarrassing opening day, the group has cleaned up. However, right tackle Kaleb McGary simply can’t be trusted. Smith has tried to remedy this with heavier personnel groups, but he will have to find ways to help McGary in lighter packages if this team ever hopes to have a consistent and effective passing game. On the other side of the line, left guard Matthew Bergeron has been promising, and hasn’t been a liability outside of a few rookie moments.
The Falcons Defense is Here, and it’s Beautiful
After four games, the Falcons defense has given up the 10th fewest points in the league (yes, you read that correctly), is showing that their ‘bend-don’t-break’ style of play has carried over from the preseason. New defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen has crafted a mean interior defense that gets after the quarterback with David Onyemata and Grady Jarett, who have a combined total of 23 pressures and three sacks.
Meanwhile, Jerry Gray is coaching what is arguably a top-10 secondary, spearheaded by the best safety in football, Jessie Bates III. Bates is allowing an NFL passer rating of only 16.3 when targeted, and has 3 INTs. This secondary has the potential to keep improving, too, as a healthy Jeff Okudah returns to complete outside CB2 duties.
I have been concerned about the usage of a few players, mainly Arnold Ebikete. Ebikete was pegged by many to take a big step this year, and he’s arguably the best pure edge rusher the team has. However, the young player has been getting a lack of reps — only 88 over four games — and has spent 18 of those reps in coverage, something very few saw coming. Size is working against him in this scheme, but it would be nice to see a pass-rush role carved out for the year two, second round pick.
The other 2022 NFL draft pick that worries me is DeAngelo Malone. He hasn’t taken a single snap on defense, and with a lack of edge talent that’s extremely alarming. On the flip side, I’m not worried about rookies Zach Harrison or Clark Phillips III, because they need development time and are just starting their professional careers. I expect both to get more play time as the season goes on.
Pass rush from the edge is the only thing holding this unit back from being elite. The team also lost linebacker Troy Andersen for the season after he had a promising start. Both of these situations will be on hold until 2024, and leave us with plenty of excitement for what could be.
Falcons Season Review: Q2 Preview
With all that being said, is it surprising that my prediction for the next four games is another 2-2 split? I understand that prediction feels highly optimistic with where the team stands, especially since the volatility from the offense will continue. However, with volatility comes highs and lows. Remember, this run game (Robinson) and defense have shown the ability to win games with their performances (Panthers and Packers).
The Falcons will face CJ Stroud and the red-hot Texans, followed by the Commanders, Buccaneers, and Titans. It’s not a cakewalk, but it’s a winnable slate of games.
Atlanta matches up well with Houston’s run defense (23 missed tackles this season), and while the Commanders can score in bunches, they are extremely careless with the football. I will never buy into Baker Mayfield hype; plus, anything goes in a conference game, and the Titans will want to play into the style of football Atlanta plays. These games come down to the Falcons not beating themselves and capitalizing on their opportunities more efficiently.
Not being able to get out of their own way is what truly knocked this offensive unit as a whole off track. If they can clean up the route errors, the missed throws, and the at times suspect play calling, they can compete with anyone in the league. Unfortunately, we have already seen what happens when they do the opposite.
Falcons First Quarter Season Review: The Road Ahead
The Falcons learned a lot about themselves in the first quarter of the season, and that’s not necessarily bad. They were over .500 for the first time in six years and avoided going under. More importantly, they know what to improve on to get better and start winning games again.
If we don’t see an improvement these next four games, we’ll start having more concrete answers about Desmond Ridder and Arthur Smith. I don’t expect Smith to pull Ridder until after the bye — if it comes to it. Hopefully it doesn’t have to.