Mid-term report card: Falcons had solutions to earn 4-4 mark

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

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The Falcons edged the Saints 27-25 Sunday in New Orleans and evened their record at 4-4.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

There was cause for alarm in some Falcons quarters after the season-opening loss to the Eagles.

But not at 4400 Falcons Parkway, site of the team headquarters.

Very few starters played in the exhibition season and it showed in the opener. With the Eagles game as a low-bar, first-year coach Arthur Smith and his staff had to craft game plans that would get a young team in position to win some games.

After losing to the Buccaneers to drop to 0-2, the Falcons had a breakthrough against the Giants. The win started a run of four wins in the past six games, including Sunday’s win over the Saints, that make the Falcons 4-4 near halfway point of the first 17-games season.

Football Morning in America’s Peter King, who stopped by practice recently, opined in the ‘10 things I think I think’ section. Item 2 was, “I think Arthur Smith is getting an awful lot out of the Atlanta Falcons,” King wrote.

Here’s a look at the Falcons’ mid-term grades:

Pass offense: Without their anticipated No. 1 and No. 2 receivers for three games, the Falcons have cobbled together a credible passing attack around rookie tight end Kyle Pitts (36 catches, 546 yards and a touchdown) and running back/wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (team-leading 38 catches, 459 yards and five touchdowns). Both have made plays with games on the line and have made some tough grabs. Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage were solid when available. Tajae Sharpe has been dependable when the passes have come his way. Christian Blake has helped on special teams while rookie Frank Darby is finding his way in the NFL. Tight ends Hayden Hurst and Lee Smith do a lot of the dirty work and have helped in the passing game. Quarterback Matt Ryan is completing 69.4% of his passes and has 15 touchdowns to six interceptions. GRADE: B

Run offense: The Falcons have been unable to protect leads because they can’t move the ball on the ground. That costs them a win against Washington and nearly cost them against New Orleans. Before tonight’s Monday Night game, the Falcons are ranked 29th in the league in rushing at 80.4 yards per game. The offensive line has not opened holes for Mike Davis and Patterson. The Falcons have even tried running some RPOs with third-string quarterback Feleipe Franks. Wayne Gallman has been used sparingly. Qadree Ollison was active for just the New Orleans game. If the Falcons are going to make a playoff push, they must improve the poor ground game. GRADE: D

Pass defense: Left cornerback AJ Terrell has been spectacular and right cornerback Fabian Moreau has played some tough and gritty ball. Safeties Duron Harmon and Erik Harris have been solid. Jaylinn Hawkins has two interceptions. Nickel back has been problematic after the season-ending injury knee injury to Isaiah Oliver. Rookies Avery Williams, Richie Grant and Darren Hall have played some nickel. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has tried to blitz to create a pass rush, but the secondary hasn’t held up in man-to-man coverage. The Falcons have 11 sacks, which ranks last in the league behind the Chiefs, who have 12 sacks. OLB James Vaughters had a strip-sack against the Saints. The return of OLB Dante Fowler could spruce up the pass rush. He suffered a knee injury in Week 5 and the earlier he could return is against Dallas this week. GRADE: C

Run defense: The Falcons have moved tackle Grady Jarrett along the line and have even pushed him out to end at times. In the new 3-4 alignment, linebackers Foye Oluokun and Deion Jones are getting most of the action while tackles Jonathan Bullard and Tyeler Davison eat up blocks. Second-year man Marlon Davidson has flashed while John Cominsky has fallen off the grid. Going into the New Orleans game, the defense was giving up 34.1 yards rushing per game to quarterbacks on what Pees called loose plays. GRADE: C-minus

Special teams: Kicker Younghoe Koo has made three game-winning field goals, but missed a key 45-yard field goal in the loss to Carolina. Veteran Dustin Colquitt has stabilized the punting situation after Cameron Nizialek suffered a hamstring injury. Returners Williams and Patterson have been solid. Veteran linebacker Daren Bates was added to help stabilize the coverage units after the Falcons gave up a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Washington and gave up another long-gainer to Tevin Coleman against the Jets the following week. GRADE: B

Coaching: Smith and his staff have done a great job of masking their very obvious weaknesses. Smith has used the quick passing game to keep defenses off balance while the line continues to improve. The defense, which has no pass rush, must somehow win on third downs and in the red zone. Smith likes to say the coaches are in the “solution businesses” and over the first half of the season they found enough solutions to go 4-4. If they found a solution for running the ball, they would have beaten Washington and if they’d controlled Sam Darnold on his third down dashes, they could have earned another win. But after three losing seasons, 4-4 at the mid-term, should be celebrated. GRADE: B

Intangibles: The Falcons are learning how to win and come through with big plays with the game on the line. They are a gritty bunch and have brought into to Smith and his veteran coaching staff. GRADE: A

The Bow Tie Chronicles

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Falcons’ 2021 schedule features trip to London, January trip to Buffalo

Atlanta Falcons schedule and scores

Eagles 32, Falcons 6

Buccaneers 48, Falcons 25

Falcons 17, Giants 14

Washington 34, Falcons 30

Falcons 27, Jets 20

Bye Week

Falcons 30, Dolphins 28

Panthers 19, Falcons 13

Falcons 27, Saints 25

Next four games

Falcons at Cowboys, 1 p.m. Sunday

Patriots at Falcons, 8:20 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18

Falcons at Jacksonville, 1 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 28

Tampa Bay at Atlanta, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 5

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