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The Atlanta Falcons will not apologize for embracing their identity

As training camps get under way, I’ll be doing some features on individual teams throughout the league. Here’s a look at the Atlanta Falcons.

The Atlanta Falcons have gone 14-20 over the past two seasons and haven’t made the playoffs since 2017. They are set to start second-year player Desmond Ridder at quarterback, who made just four starts as a rookie and posted a lower quarterback rating than the man he replaced (Marcus Mariota). They controversially spent their 1st Round draft pick — number eight overall — on a running back, which is about as socially acceptable these days as wearing white slacks in January. They have questions at cornerback, and they are relying on production elsewhere from players like Calais Campbell, Bud Dupree and Cordarrelle Patterson, all of whom are past their prime.

Naturally, the Falcons are my pick to win the NFC South.

That might not be as shocking as I made it seem. You could construct a pretty strong case for any of the division’s four teams to claim the title. Carolina has the deepest roster; New Orleans has the best quarterback and Tampa Bay is loaded at the skill positions. But Atlanta has something none of those others do, and it should provide them an advantage in the close inter-division contests that will inevitably decide the South. That thing is an identity.

The selection of Bijan Robinson, the talented running back from the University of Texas, at number eight in the draft certainly drew some polarizing reactions. The niche market that has become instantly grading a team’s draft before any of its selections have laced up a cleat for the franchise, which is one of the dumbest and most annoying trends in current sports media (but which, as a high school teacher, would save me a lot of work if I just assigned grades to my students the moment they walked into class on the first day of school)… that market was all over the place on Atlanta, grading their draft anywhere from a D to an A+.

The low grades came because people couldn’t fathom selecting a running back that high, especially when Atlanta was fairly strong at the position and had needs elsewhere. The high grades came because Robinson is an exceptional prospect who fits perfectly with Atlanta’s vision of who they are as a football team. It is that latter point — doubling down on a position of strength in order to sharply define how they intend to play football — that puts me in the camp with the high graders.

In selecting Robinson, Atlanta strengthened an area where they already excelled. The Falcons finished third in the NFL last season at 159.9 rushing yards per game. They had a 1,000-yard rusher in rookie Tyler Allgeier, a dominant offensive line and a head coach — Arthur Smith, formerly of the Tennessee Titans — who embraced a smash-mouth, run-first mentality. Adding Robinson to that mix made perfect sense. While Allgeier and Patterson had formed an effective one-two punch at running back, the former is a 5th Round draft pick and the latter is 32-years old. Neither is a sure bet to replicate their 2022 success. Robinson, meanwhile, was touted as the best running back prospect since Saquon Barkley and drew comparisons, stylistically, with both Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott. Barkley and Elliott rushed for 1,307 and 1,631 yards as rookies, respectively, providing optimism that Robinson, behind a strong line in a run-first system, will have similar success. That will ease the burden on Allgeier and Patterson and allow them to occupy lesser roles for which they may be better suited.

I’m all in on that thinking. When Smith was hired as head coach in 2021, he inherited late-career Matt Ryan as his quarterback. Ryan was no longer the passer he’d been in his prime, so Smith sought to protect him by building a powerful line and emphasizing the run. That philosophy was expanded upon last season. Ryan left for Indianapolis and Smith brought in Mariota, with whom he’d worked in Tennessee. The Falcons invested in a ball-control system that used shifts and motions to get extra blockers at the point of attack, then emphasized the run and the play-action pass. Mariota didn’t work out as well as Smith had hoped, so they made the move to Ridder.

Like Mariota, Ridder is athletic and a good fit for a play-action system that also moves the pocket. There are questions about Ridder’s accuracy as a passer, and his four-game sample from last season didn’t reveal enough to draw many conclusions. Atlanta is confident enough in Ridder, however, that their backup is Taylor Heinicke, who is seen as a genuine #2 and not a competitor for the starting job. The Falcons have given Ridder plenty of help at receiver, highlighted by Drake London and tight end Kyle Pitts. Patterson remains one of the most useful Swiss Army knife-type players in the league and should give Ridder a reliable veteran presence in the lineup.

The plan is clear, then. Look for Atlanta to pound the ball with Robinson and Allgeier, sprinkle in some designed runs for Ridder, lean heavily on play-action passes as a constraint concept and feed the football to London and Pitts when they do. In this sense, Smith is zigging as much of the NFL zags. With so much emphasis on spread concepts, horizontal attacks and Air Raid schemes, defenses are getting lighter and faster to combat the speed-and-space approach from their counterparts. The Falcons, meanwhile, are building a throwback offense that would fit as comfortably in 1998 as it does today. This makes sense for Smith, given the fact he’s a protegee of power-run coaches like Mike Munchak, Russ Grimm and Joe Gibbs. It may also provide Atlanta the edge they need to win the South.

The parity of the division means many of its games will be tight affairs that come down to a handful of late possessions. Atlanta’s approach should take some of the burden for winning those games off of Ridder’s shoulders. The Falcons may not be built to drive 80 yards in the final two minutes to win. But if they can get to the 4th quarter within striking distance, their ball-control attack and methodical approach is perfect for wearing out defenses and keeping opposing offenses off of the field. Contrast that to the Saints and Buccaneers, who will rely on the traditionally inconsistent Derek Carr and Baker Mayfield in those situations, or the Panthers, who have rookie Bryce Young. Given the options, I’d favor Atlanta in a tight game down the stretch.

The Falcons have issues they must resolve to put themselves in position to win those tight games. They are unsettled at cornerback, must decide on a starting left guard and need Ridder to progress from his rookie campaign. But everyone in the division has questions. What the Falcons have that the others don’t is a distinct identity, one they can lean on when things are tight. In a division where the separation between teams is razor thin, that should be the difference that gets Atlanta to the post-season.

 

 

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