Smith expressed his frustrations to Tori McElhaney of the team’s official website, and one word stood out. The Falcons are becoming “obvious” in their attempts to move the ball, according to Smith:
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Smith Has a Point
The man in charge is right to criticize what he’s been seeing offensively. Against the Patriots, Atlanta threw the ball 32 times, compared with just 16 rushing attempts, according to Pro Football Reference. This was no statistical anomaly. The same website details how the Falcons have thrown 363 passes and run the ball just 230 times for the season.
It didn’t make sense to stick with an aerial approach against the Patriots. Not when the Falcons faced a resurgent defense led by a cadre of versatile pass-rushers, including Matthew Judon. He sacked Matt Ryan once to take his season tally to 10.5, but the ex-Baltimore Ravens star was far from the only one feasting on Atlanta’s veteran quarterback.
You had to feel for Ryan, who was sacked four times, twice by returning Patriot Kyle Van Noy. The constant pressure prevented Ryan from targeting playmakers like rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. A consistently collapsing pocket also led to a comedy of errors when Ryan then backups Josh Rosen and Feleipe Franks conspired to throw interceptions on four consecutive drives, including Rosen’s pick-six to Van Noy.
It wasn’t hard to see why Atlanta’s quarterbacks struggled. The Falcons simply don’t have a healthy or agile enough offensive line to hold off pass-rushers for long. Smith has not too subtly reminded offensive coordinator Dave Ragone to protect the faltering O-line with more even-handed play calling.
Ragone Is Being Challenged to Do Better
Make no mistake, Smith’s words are a coded challenge to Ragone to improve the league’s 27th-ranked scoring unit. Yet, it’s harsh to criticize Ragone for not calling more running plays, given the first-time coordinator’s background.
He got the job in Atlanta after a stint coaching quarterbacks with the Chicago Bears and then becoming passing game coordinator last season. It’s clear where the 41-year-old’s schematic preferences lie.
Ragone can also be forgiven for helping the flourishing partnership between Ryan and Pitts. The latter had been putting up all-time numbers since arriving as the fourth-overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, becoming the first tight end in NFL history to make 40 catches and 606 receiving yards in his first nine career games, according to NFL Network:
Those stats make it hard to fault Ragone for wanting to keep Pitts involved, but maybe the formula has become obvious. The Patriots were certainly ready for Pitts, who caught just three passes for 29 yards after New England honcho Bill Belichick compared him to former Falcons greats Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones, MassLive.com reported.
Attention paid to Pitts gave Ragone the ideal opportunity to involve his running backs more often. Granted, his hands were tied somewhat by leading rusher Cordarelle Patterson missing the game with an ankle injury, but there were other options.
Mike Davis and Wayne Gallman both enjoyed productive seasons in 2020, yet neither has made the grade since jumping to Atlanta in free agency. They combined for just four carries for minus-two yards against the Pats.
Ragone has a bevy of weapons on the ground, while the passing game continues to miss Calvin Ridley, who is taking time away to look after his mental health. If Ragone can’t call a more balanced offense, then Smith, who helped turn Derrick Henry into the NFL’s premier running back with the Tennessee Titans, should seize the reins this Sunday against the 2-8 Jacksonville Jaguars.