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Arthur Smith’s Run-Heavy Falcons Aren’t What You Think

Yes, Atlanta is running the football like almost no other team in football. But that may not be to the team’s detriment.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Since joining the Falcons last season, head coach Arthur Smith has become known as much for his schematic acumen as he has for his gruff exchanges with the media.

In a July radio interview with 92.9 The Game in Atlanta, Smith said he “didn’t give a crap” what outside prognosticators thought about his team, and loosely compared the rebuilding Falcons—expected to field one of the league’s worst rosters after trading franchise cornerstone Matt Ryan—to Apple in the lead-up to its original iPhone release:

“There were some of the smartest people in the tech industry who said the iPhone is never going to work,” Smith said. “It’s nonsense—if you’re buying this stuff, shame on you. There’s a graveyard of hot takes and these predictions that are just comical.”

Smith reiterated his faith in the Falcons after they blew a 16-point fourth-quarter lead in a Week 1 loss to the Saints, responding to a rather innocuous question with Nick Saban-esque brashness before storming out of the press conference.

“Write whatever y’all want,” Smith said. “You guys ranked us 45th, buried us in May. Bury us again, we don’t care.”

Smith’s stubborn attitude with the press has extended to the gridiron. While the Falcons got off to a surprisingly strong 3-3 start this year, they faltered during last Sunday’s 35-17 loss to the Bengals, in which Atlanta inexplicably passed just 13 times—the second-fewest attempts in a game this season—despite trailing by at least two scores for more than 81 percent of the contest. Even when the Falcons trailed by 18 in the fourth quarter, an aerial attack still wasn’t the answer, as Mariota threw just three times compared to the offense’s five rushes.

On the year, Atlanta is tied for first in early-down rush rate (64 percent), and they’re passing just 37 percent of the time in the second halves of games—the lowest rate of any team over the past 10 years. These numbers are shocking, especially when considering Atlanta enters the third quarter down by an average of four points per game.

It doesn’t take a machine-learning model to realize that Smith could call more pass plays, and it’s easy to pile on the coach for a gameplan that seemed designed to take football back to the leatherhead era. But Smith is no dummy, and it’s worth examining why he favors the run so heavily—even when trailing by three scores late in the game.

To his credit, Smith’s team is playing above its talent level for a second consecutive season after the coach led Atlanta to a better-than-expected 7-10 record in 2021. The offense has been particularly impressive, given the loss of franchise cornerstone Matt Ryan, and currently ranks ninth in DVOA after finishing 28th in the same category last year.

Kyle Pitts and Drake London fantasy football managers may hate to hear it, but Smith’s reliance on a high-volume run game is the product of production, not dogma. Through seven weeks, the Falcons’ points per drive (2.1), as well as their rushing (.04) and passing (.06) expected points added per play, rank among the NFL’s top 10, and their explosive play rate (11 percent) grades out right around league average. Atlanta’s also become much more efficient in the red zone under journeyman starting quarterback Marcus Mariota: a limited passer, but a player whose mobility gives the Falcons an added dimension near the goal line that they haven’t had since Michael Vick left town.

Sure, the scoreboard eventually looked crooked on Sunday against Cincinnati, but Smith’s continued commitment to running mirrored successful strategies he employed earlier in the season in comeback efforts against the Rams and Buccaneers.

Though the Falcons eventually fell 31-27 in Week 2 against the defending champion Rams, Atlanta nearly exorcized some demons by storming back from a 28-3 deficit while passing just two more times than they rushed in the second half. A similar script unfolded against the Buccaneers in Week 5, when the Falcons trailed 21-0 heading into the fourth quarter but scored 15 unanswered points—and were a botched roughing the passer penalty away from attempting a potential game-winning drive—despite rushing five more times than they passed in that final frame.

Atlanta lost both games, but the process offers a proof of concept for the stubborn Smith and his offensive staff. Down big late in the second half? Here’s the gameplan: Hope for a turnover that turns into an easy score, force some three-and-outs while the opponent tries to burn the clock, and voilà—you’re a couple skillfully schemed chunk plays away from winning the game. The margins may seem a bit too thin for comfort, but Smith is simply playing to his quarterback’s strengths (or lack thereof) and hoping to avoid his defense entirely.

On the surface, Mariota has played well this season. He currently ranks among the league’s top 10 signal callers in passing and rushing EPA and rushing yards, and is extending drives with his feet in ways Falcons fans rarely saw from Ryan during his 14 years with the franchise. That said, the former no. 2 pick’s right arm has left a lot to be desired, as his inaccurate pass rate ranks 34th out of 35 qualified quarterbacks in the NFL, ahead of only Justin Fields.

Mariota started the year strong, but Smith seems to have lost faith in his starting quarterback sometime over the past three weeks, as Atlanta has averaged just 17 passes per game during that stretch and is now on pace for the second-fewest pass attempts per game by a team since 1990. This isn’t strictly a vote of no confidence in Mariota, though, as the Falcons’ winning formula under Smith has always been rooted in commitment to a wide-zone run game that he’s been tweaking since his time as the Titans offensive coordinator. After Ryan’s departure, Smith and the Falcons’ offensive brass wisely crafted an even more rush-heavy offense tailored to Mariota—which includes plenty of rollouts, smoke-and-mirror run concepts out of the pistol formation, and a league-high play-action rate—that has kept their bottom-five roster competitive each week.

The offense’s precipitous dropoff in early-down pass rate from 2021 to 2022 is the clearest evidence of the Falcons’ new blueprint in the post-Ryan era. And, on the whole, the plan is working. Though they’ve lost their best playmaker Cordarrelle Patterson to injury, and Pitts and London have become afterthoughts in the offense, three of the team’s four losses have come by a combined 11 points, and they sit atop a vulnerable NFC South at 3-4.

Atlanta’s coaching staff is also hamstrung by a defense that boasts just two former first-round picks as starters, which is tied for the fewest in football. For reference, one of those two starters is 2021 second-team All-Pro corner A.J. Terrell, who missed most of the Cincinnati game with a hamstring injury and could be out for the next few weeks. The other is Rashaan Evans, a 2018 first-rounder on his second team who grades out as PFF’s 92nd-best linebacker in football this season. Against the Bengals on Sunday, the defense allowed 459 passing yards—the second-most by a team all season. Heading into their Week 8 matchup with the Panthers, Atlanta’s defense ranks bottom five in yards per play allowed, pressure rate, and opponent points per drive.

The NFL’s best teams can win multiple ways, often relying on late-game quarterback heroics or timely sacks and interceptions from big-play defenses. Atlanta can win in basically only one: by controlling the football and limiting what they ask their quarterback and defense to do. That their coach understands this makes him clever, not foolish.

After last Sunday’s loss to the Bengals, Smith regurgitated familiar talking points in the postgame press conference, telling reporters that Pitts is targeted “plenty,” while suggesting that the game plan was fine and that the offense just didn’t do enough to sustain drives.

He may not be entirely correct there—a few more passes couldn’t have hurt the Falcons more than they were already hurting last Sunday, but Atlanta doesn’t have a crisis of poor effort or bad coaching. In fact, the Falcons typically win because of Smith’s tactical decisions, not in spite of them. Outside of Mike Vrabel and Mike Tomlin, there’s not a coach in football that’s achieved more with less talent than Smith has over the past two seasons since inheriting a fundamentally flawed roster and one of the league’s worst cap situations.

The broader takeaway from Atlanta’s first seven games has nothing to do with combative press conferences or Smith’s reluctance to put the ball in the air. Rather, it’s about the team’s surprising success in light of the circumstances.

During a candid offseason conversation with Jeff Schultz of The Athletic, Smith lauded the Steelers organization and rebuked tanking, calling it “the dumbest thing.”

“I want to win,” Smith said. “I have an urgency to win. You’re never promised anything. You don’t know what’s going to happen a year from now.”

The NFC South is up for grabs, and if Smith continues to keep the Falcons competitive in games they have no business winning, his team may string together enough victories to host a playoff game come January. Atlanta’s odds may seem long—FiveThirtyEight gives the Falcons just a 39 percent chance of making the playoffs—but they also have one of the NFL’s easiest remaining schedules and play in the weakest division since Washington won the NFC East with a 7-9 record in 2020.

“Terry [Fontenot] and I have a shared vision how to build this thing in the long term and also compete in the short term,” he said in that same Athletic interview. “You can’t keep selling hope all the time. You have to have that buy-in.”

Fans may be dubious of the franchise’s vision, but there’s something to Smith’s win-at-all-cost mentality. A strong culture without talent may not win Super Bowls, but neither does talent without a strong culture—which is arguably more difficult to develop.

Next offseason the Falcons will enter free agency with the financial flexibility to plug major roster holes after years of being in cap purgatory. Their defense should improve immediately, and they’ll likely be one step closer to finding the quarterback of the future—whether that’s through the draft, the trade market, or an in-house option like Desmond Ridder.

Atlanta could be one season away from serious contention, or six. Either way, it seems like this team is going to surprise some people, just like the iPhone did when it changed the world in 2007.