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2021 Stats (rank)
Total Offense: 5,164 (29th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 31 (27th)
Offensive Plays: 1,006 (31st)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 613 (19th)
Rush Attempts: 393 (29th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 229 (6th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 206 (6th)
Before being named Falcons head coach in 2021, Arthur Smith served as Tennessee's offensive coordinator for two seasons. Smith oversaw a Titans offense that transformed Ryan Tannehill from a first-round bust and backup into the second-ranked quarterback in EPA per play from 2019 to 2020. Only Patrick Mahomes was more efficient over that span. Tannehill also ranked second in completion percentage over expected; only Russell Wilson was more accurate. Tannehill deserves much of the credit for turning his career around. It also helped that A.J. Brown emerged as a superstar as the Tannehill era began and that Derrick Henry is Derrick Henry. But Smith also put Tannehill in position to succeed. In 2019, Tannehill ran play action on 31% of his dropbacks, the seventh-highest rate in the league. In 2020, that jumped to 36%, tying Lamar Jackson for the NFL lead. Play action has been shown to improve passing efficiency regardless of running game success, but it can't have hurt to have prime Derrick Henry in the backfield. Smith also pushed the pace with his offense clicking, jumping from 19th in situation-neutral seconds per play in 2019 to third in 2020.
Things were a little less fun when Smith got to Atlanta, but his offense was still vaguely recognizable. Behind a terrible pass-blocking line, Matt Ryan finished 23rd in EPA per play, but he did benefit from a heavy dose of run fakes, finishing 12th in play action rate. The Falcons were also surprisingly uptempo for a below-average team, finishing 11th in situation-neutral pace. The Falcons are likely to be fairly quick in 2022. With a more mobile quarterback under center and what should be an improved running game, we may also see more play-action passing as well.
Mariota is expected to open the season as the Falcons starter, but third-round pick Desmond Ridder is in play to make starts down the stretch. Mariota spent the last two seasons in Las Vegas and, in limited snaps, flashed a reinvented approach to the game. In 2019, Mariota executed just nine designed runs in 141 snaps (6%); over the last two seasons, he's rushed 18 times on designed run plays in 53 snaps (34%). Mariota was a reserve quarterback for the Raiders, allowing him to run with abandon. He won't be anywhere near his Raiders rushing rates as a starter this season, but his time with the Raiders may still signal a shift in Mariota's approach. Hopefully, something will change because Mariota was quite bad in Smith's offense in 2019. Despite leading the league in play action rate, Mariota finished 29th in EPA per play and 32nd in completion percentage over expected. Play action helps, but it won't hide a less accurate quarterback than Kyle Allen and Mason Rudolph, although Mariota has shown far better accuracy than when the bottom fell out in 2019. From 2017 to 2018, he ranked 16th in CPOE, directly ahead of Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins, and Jimmy Garoppolo. If he can operate as a mobile Garoppolo, the Falcons' passing game could be more frisky than expected.
If not, Ridder could see quite a bit of work in his rookie season. Ridder was a four-year starter at Cincinnati after redshirting in 2017, and he was consistently productive as a rusher, averaging 44 rushing yards per game. Although most of his production came on designed rushing plays rather than scrambles. Like Mariota, Ridder will benefit if Smith attacks defenses with designed quarterback runs.
As a passer, Ridder was productive in a pro-style system, but he also comes with some major red flags. His accuracy is a concern, ranking 27th percentile in adjusted completion percentage, and he was horrific under pressure, ranking second percentile in adjusted completion percentage under pressure while being sacked on a Hackenbergian 24% of his pressured dropbacks. The Falcons had Pro Football Focus' 31st graded pass blocking line in 2021 and are bringing back the same group for 2022. Ridder has a good chance to make starts this season, but we could see Mariota reclaim the job if Ridder can't function under pressure.
The Falcons do at least have some premium weapons in the passing game. Kyle Pitts immediately made good on his No. 4 overall draft selection with a 68-reception rookie season for 1,026 yards. He only scored once, the only blemish on an otherwise spectacular debut. With 2.02 yards per route run, Pitts became one of five rookie tight ends to see 50+ targets with 1.9+ yards per route—joining Zach Ertz (1.90), Rob Gronkowski (1.93), Mark Andrews (1.96), and Jordan Reed (2.21). Pitts played just 22% of his snaps in line in 2021; only Mike Gesicki (7%) was lower. Pitts was asked to pass block on just 3% of his snaps. Only Mark Andrews, Mike Gesicki, Travis Kelce, and Cameron Brate had lower pass blocking rates. Surprisingly, Pitts only finished 11th in slot snap percentage among tight ends... but that's because he led the position with 34% of his snaps out wide. It's a little silly to even call Pitts a tight end; he's a receiver. As a receiver, Pitts' combination of draft capital, college production, athleticism, and rookie year success all point to a massive second-year ceiling. If the Falcons can deliver below-average but non-catastrophic quarterback play, Pitts could emerge as a true superstar.
Defenses won't be able to focus exclusively on Pitts because they'll also have to contend with the No. 8 overall pick Drake London. London was absolutely dominant at USC in 2021. As a true junior, he totaled 88 receptions for 1,084 yards and seven TDs in just eight games, accounting for 43% of USC's passing yards and 41% of their passing TDs. Unfortunately, a fractured ankle cut his breakout campaign short and prevented him from participating in timed drills in the predraft process. London's straight-line speed is potentially below average, but the former basketball player has incredible leaping ability and dominated in contested catch situations. He was also highly effective on screens and short throws. London may ultimately see a high percentage of shallow targets given Mariota and Ridder are both fairly conservative passers and that the Falcons' offensive line is suspect. However, even if his target mix isn't ideal, London's target volume should be generous. Behind London, the Falcons will be featuring two of Bryan Edwards, Olamide Zaccheaus, Damiere Byrd, and Auden Tate. With even a below-average transition to the NFL, London should eventually earn a high-volume role.
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Cordarrelle Patterson is remembered as the Falcons' starting running back in 2021... but Mike Davis led the backfield in snaps. He was so bad we've willed ourselves into collective amnesia. With a 57% snap share that barely trailed James Conner (58%) and tied Antonio Gibson, Davis scored just 144.2 PPR points, fewer than Devonta Freeman and just 0.1 more than Devontae Booker (both running backs played one fewer game than Davis). Davis' 3.6 yards per carry and 4.5 yards per target—both of which are abysmal—obscure that he handled a significant workload in 2021. Even while losing work down the stretch, Davis saw 196 opportunities (carries + targets) in 2021. Davis' role could be inherited by fifth-round rookie Tyler Allgeier sometime in 2022. Allgeier only ran a 4.6 40 at 224 pounds but was an impressive breakaway runner at BYU. He'll likely struggle with consistency but should offer a much more exciting element to the backfield than Davis did. While Allgeier gets up to speed, Damien Williams should contribute on early downs and as a check-down outlet unless former Titan Jeremy McNichols can beat him out for the role.
As long as the Falcons can get moderate efficiency from a traditional running back, Patterson will be doing his thing as a receiver. In 2021, Patterson appeared to suffer from Davis' inefficiency, forcing the Falcons to use him more as a traditional running back. From Weeks 1-9, Patterson played 48% of snaps, running 17.3 routes per game and seeing a 16% target share. From Weeks 10-18, he played 47% of snaps, but his routes declined to 13.4 per game, and his target share dropped to 10%. Meanwhile, Davis' snap share dropped from 64% in Weeks 1-9 to 49% in Weeks 10-18. Given the lack of a strong WR2 option, Patterson projects to be more productive if the backfield is competent without him playing the lead role there.
The Falcons are set to return the same starting offensive line that ranked 31st in Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking grades in 2021, but they, shockingly, ranked sixth in run blocking grade. It's also a fairly young unit, with 3-of-5 starters entering their age-25 seasons or younger and LT Jake Matthews the oldest starter at only 30. The Falcons' 2021 run-blocking success offers hope for 2022, and perhaps they are able to gel as a pass-blocking unit in their second season together in Smith's offense.
PointsBet Over/Under: 4.5
The Falcons were a seven-win team in 2021, but only the Giants (-158), Texans (-172), Jets (-194), and Jaguars (-204) had a worse point differential than the Falcons (-146). None of those teams had more than four wins, and the three-win Lions had a better point differential (-142). Moreover, the last time we saw Mariota in this offense, he went 2-4 as a starter and the Titans averaged 7.75 points in his four losses. After Tannehill took the starting job in Week 7, the Titans never scored fewer than 20 points, finished the regular season on a 7-3 run, and beat the Patriots and MVP Lamar Jackson's Ravens in the playoffs. Mariota will have far less to work with this year, and Ridder may ultimately captain the team down the stretch. The Falcons may be forced to the air enough to power a Pitts breakout or a fun London rookie season, but it's hard to see them actually making noise in 2022.