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What to know about the Falcons bye week

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By: Dave Choate

Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The birds of pray are birds who need to pray they do better after the bye.

The Atlanta Falcons are in trouble. A season that began 2-0 has disintegrated into a 4-6 mess, with the team looking like the worst version of themselves from 2022 and even the doldrums of 2021. They’re not closing out close games, every aspect of the offense, defense, and special teams has been in disarray aside from Younghoe Koo’s kicking, and the heat has been cranked up in the court of public opinion, if not necessarily in Flowery Branch’s cool leather seating. The Falcons were supposed to be at least a borderline playoff team at this point; instead, they’re in danger of falling out of the NFC South race with one of the league’s easiest schedules.

That makes this bye week a particularly critical one. To stay alive, the Falcons have to come out with some answers to their most pressing woes and knock off the division rival Saints, which would put them at 5-5 and tied with New Orleans, not to mention the owner of a sterling 3-0 record in the South. Win and you’re still very much in this putrid division; lose and you’re going to have to be virtually perfect from there to claw your way back in.

That makes this a pressure-packed week for the Falcons, and there is one big decision and a lot of major improvements that have to happen. Here’s your bye week primer for what’s ahead.

Rankings

At a very high level, here’s what you can say about the Falcons: They run the ball well most days and they’re relatively stingy in terms of yardage allowed, limiting scoring opportunities. They’ve gotten a little better on the ground, a bit worse through the air, and definitely worse on defense in recent weeks, and they are a pretty mediocre team overall. That’s reflected in these high-level rankings, but even if you dig down a few layers, it’s impossible to come to a different conclusion.

The problem for Atlanta is that while the offense might get better-I said might—the defense seems unlikely to. Grady Jarrett’s absence is a huge problem, and without stellar play up front, everything else gets a degree or two more difficult for Atlanta. The defensive backs have been pretty good this year, but asking them to hold in coverage a beat or two longer is still a tough ask, particularly for Richie Grant. The lack of pass rush against mobile passers—fortunately the Falcons basically have cleared the toughest ones on their schedule—is a problem, and it’s a problem even against players like Derek Carr who prefer to just sit there. No Jarrett has robbed the Falcons of their best run defender and a key pass rushing presence up front, the loss of LaCale London has hurt the team’s depth, and Troy Andersen’s absence means coverage is an adventure against tight ends and running backs for Kaden Elliss and Nate Landman, who are otherwise playing quite well. The big plays are still going to happen; the hope is that the Falcons can tighten up and prevent more of them.

Ultimately, this is a team that could be solid if they didn’t make so many mistakes, but need a big jump from the offense to really contend down the stretch.

How the Falcons need to change

In so many ways!

Let’s start with the passing game. Atlanta has one legitimate above average receiver in Drake London, a pair of quality weapons at tight end in Kyle Pitts and Jonnu Smith, and a useful safety valve in Bijan Robinson. Everyone else is only sporadically useful, and Van Jefferson is well on his way to being a burnt draft pick swap, having caught just one of his eight third down targets and five of 14 targets overall. The Falcons need someone to step up and be a semi-regular contributor at wide receiver outside of London for this thing to really hum.

The team also badly needs Desmond Ridder or Taylor Heinicke, whoever winds up starting, to be able to captain a higher-upside passing attack. Having pass catchers step up and pass protection improve will help a great deal, but once the team makes their quarterback decision—it’s going to be Ridder—they need the player they roll with to play smarter, less turnover-prone football. They also need to unlock their deep passing attack to put some fear into opposing defenses, who have to be wondering why seemingly every ball coming out of Heinicke’s hand the past two weeks has traveled less than 10 yards.

They also need to run more efficiently, which involves better blocking, crisper and more decisive running from Tyler Allgeier in particular and Robinson to a lesser extent, plus some tinkering from the coaching staff to avoid wasteful early downs run into the teeth of the defense. The ground game has been a disappointment this year but has shown signs of stirring in the last few weeks, so the lift may not be as heavy here. Regardless, it’s important for the team to prioritize getting Robinson impactful touches, given the game-breaking ability he possesses.

Overall, the red zone offense needs to improve, though again they’ve made at least mild strides over the past few weeks. Utilizing Kyle Pitts, a red zone nightmare during his college days, would help with that, as would removing any plays that involve, say, a tight end throwing the ball to another tight end. What is clear is that getting the Falcons to a top ten touchdown rate in the red zone, given that they’re making at least three trips there per week over the past several weeks, would have them winning more games than they’ve been able to.

Defensively, the focus really has to be on improving the fundamental issues that have been plaguing this defense. Sometimes the coverage is tight and the pass rush does enough to force quarterbacks to make throws they do not want to make and drives are derailed; in recent weeks, the more common outcome has been a coverage lapse, lost containment, missed tackles, and communication issues leading to the kind of big plays that have utterly doomed the Falcons in years past. The challenge here is moving forward without Grady Jarrett and finding a way to avoid those mistakes, because I don’t expect a kickass pass rush to materialize out of thin air. The run defense remains solid.

And on special teams, the Falcons need to tackle. These big returns have really boiled down to poor angles and poor tackling, the same kind of issues that have been dooming the defense against mobile quarterbacks.

Aside from that, though, they’re almost there.

What to know about the bye week

It’s an opportunity for the Falcons to take a quick step back and try to fix the many things that ail them before the season slips away entirely. They also need to settle on the quarterback they’ll be playing going forward; I think the general feeling among those who cover the team is that it’s going to be Ridder.

For that last point, it absolutely makes sense to go back to the young quarterback. My expectations are not that Ridder is going to have everything click into place and nail down the job long-term, but with Heinicke not really doing much besides avoiding turnovers over the last couple of weeks to show he’s clearly a better option under center than Ridder, the Falcons will likely want to roll with the guy they bet on to start the season. Where it will get messy is if Ridder’s almost unbelievable turnover run is not actually over, and if that’s the case, I do think there’s a chance we see Heinicke again. I hope Ridder can do well enough to at least help keep this team afloat, and so does Arthur Smith.

Make no mistake, despite all the fan petitions and talk of boycotts and strong desire to launch Arthur Smith into orbit: This team is not dead yet, however dead they may feel. A win over the Saints in Week 12 gives them a sterling 3-0 divisional record and catapults them back to the top of the NFC South. From there, continued winning could carry them right into the postseason, with a 5-2 record feeling pretty close to necessary and a 4-3 record maybe getting the job done if all your victories are in the NFC South.

Is that particularly likely? I can’t say I think so, given the laundry list of improvements this team has to make, many of which were outlined above. If the Falcons can find the footing that has eluded them all year long and make a big playoff push, so much of the team-building and chest-thumping from Arthur Smith will click into place for Atlanta, which will be able to go into next year confident the road they’re taking is heading to the right destination.

Failing that and failing to post a winning season in 2023, as seems quite likely, should prompt tougher conversations in Flowery Branch about where the Falcons are headed and what is needed to get them back to actually contending. Frankly, the state of the team heading into this bye week demands those conversations happen regardless of how the season ends.

Originally posted on The Falcoholic – All Posts