It’s abundantly clear that Arthur Smith is the wrong coach for the Falcons at the worst possible time. In brief period he’s managed to take potentially one of the most exciting offenses in the NFL and turn them into hollow shell of mediocrity. The worst part is that Smith seemingly has no awareness why the team is struggling, nor does he want to make efforts to improve them.
This was apparent on Sunday when then Atlanta was dismantled by the Titans in Will Levis’ first start. It was a game marred by endless predictability on the Falcons’ part, which required very little scheming around. Couple that with a defensive plan that seemed tailor made to lead to Will Levis’ success, and it lead to the most demoralizing loss of Atlanta’s season, leaving hopelessness in its wake.
What is so sour with this team, can it be fixed, and how much of this is Arthur Smith’s fault?
The problem at quarterback
Desmond Ridder isn’t the answer. He wasn’t the answer when he was drafted, he didn’t become the answer last year, and he certainly isn’t after being handed the job by default in 2023.
Ridder has the physical tools to be a successful QB, which is likely why the Falcons have been dragging this on so long — but he hasn’t developed in any way to show he can be a long-term answer. Ridder still responds poorly to pressure, and has accuracy issues downfield. Pair this with a lack of decisiveness in passing and you have a player who could make the needed throws, but doesn’t.
It’s very likely that GM Rich McKay doesn’t want to admit that taking Ridder was a mistake, but Smith’s role in this is not being assertive enough to be clear about what he wants at the position. Even after Ridder started the Titans game 8-for-12 for 71 yards and a lost fumble, limping the offense to three points in the first half, Smith was still dancing around why he pulled his quarterback to replace him with Taylor Heinicke.
Smith said that performance wasn’t why Ridder was benched, alluding to injury concerns we never really saw. If that’s the case, and if Smith really has faith in Ridder then it’s a worst situation than first imagined.
Ridder is effectively a zero-sum gain on offense. He barely moves the ball better through the air than the running backs do on the ground, he’s turned the ball over more than he’s scored touchdowns, and both Kyle Pitts and Drake London are suffering without a decent deep passer under center.
If Arthur Smith wants Ridder to be a game manager at quarterback then he’s the problem, because that doesn’t win in the NFL anymore.
The problem with the offense
Where do we begin here?
Yes, the Falcons have offensive line issues that exacerbate problems — but fundamentally this team has no offensive identity. The weird part is that this should be simple to work out.
- Bijan Robinson is the all-purpose back
- Tyler Allgeier handles short-yardage situations
- Work off the play action to create huge gains for Kyle Pitts and Drake London
There is nothing about usage that indicates Smith wants Robinson to be the focal point of the offense. The rookie has fewer carries than Allgeier and he’s effectively non-issue in the passing game, where he only has 37 targets on the season, fewer than TE2 Jonnu Smith. It’s an absolutely nonsensical way to run the offense, especially when this blueprint worked for Arthur Smith in Tennessee with Derrick Henry.
There’s a bizarre aversion to actually use the weapons that work, and when there are struggles in-game he doubles down on passing the ball without the personnel to do it. Against the Titans this team only had 21 designed runs, despite Robinson averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
Smith has no answer clear vision for how this team should operate, and it shows. Even when they’ve won it consistently feels more like luck than skill, as if things just happened to fall together rather than be by design.
The problem with the defense
The Falcons’ defense is legitimately great — or at least it was. From a personnel standpoint this unit doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses, but much like the offense it lacks identity. The big problem on Sunday was that any modicum of scouting would tell you that Levis always had the arm to cause damage, but had issues processing scheme.
So what do the Falcons do? They sit in man all game, even while DeAndre Hopkins is eating the secondary alive.
This made absolutely no sense. They employed the same strategy against Levis that they did in Week 1 against Bryce Young and the Panthers, except for Carolina didn’t have a receiver as good as Hopkins who could punch through man.
At any point Atlanta could have changed up their scheme, moved to more zone, and asked Levis to beat the scheme — rather than simply throw pitch and catch. They didn’t.
I understand the principle behind starting the game in man and asking the Titans’ passing offense to beat them, and it probably would have worked if Ryan Tannehill was under center. Levis had the arm talent to take them over the top, and it was remarkable to see them continue to sit in the same defensive schemes without adjusting.
Whether this is the fault of defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen or not, Arthur Smith should have been able to be assertive enough to force his DC to make some changes.
What’s the future here?
It can’t be Arthur Smith. At least, it’s tough to see a future where Smith leads to sustained success in Atlanta. A lot is made of the Falcons’ 4-4 record, but this team has seen one of the sorriest strength of schedules in the NFL. They’ve beaten the Panthers, Packers, Texans and Buccaneers who have a combined win/loss record of 9-19. When Atlanta faces any decent competition they crumble, and much of this is due to lack of adjustment or planning.
The worst part is watching so many incredible offensive players waste away in a system that doesn’t know how to use them. Something has to change, and the path to success isn’t that difficult to envision. Now it’s whether Smith has the means to execute on it.