5 keys to Falcons’ season in 2021

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Atlanta Falcons will play 17 games in the 2021 NFL season.

FLOWERY BRANCH — After making one of the quickest descents from Super Bowl contender to last place dweller, the Falcons find themselves fighting for respectability in the NFL.

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The Falcons have not been to the playoffs since 2017 and went 4-12 last season to earn last place in the NFC South.

While they are not an obvious playoff team in 2021, the Falcons, in this parity era of the NFL, could certainly earn back some respect.

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Here are five keys to the Falcons’ 2021 season:

1. Matt Ryan and Arthur Smith connecting: Falcons coach Arthur Smith will call his own plays and must establish a in-game relationship with quarterback Matt Ryan, who is set to enter his 14th NFL season.

Ryan has never had the head coach in his helmet sending in the plays, so this will be new for him.

Because they’d never worked together in-game, Smith’s decision not to play Ryan one snap in the exhibition season seems even more bizarre. The two will work through their first game in the regular-season opener against the Eagles. They are bound to be some glitches.

“The best part of me with this transition is that there is a lot of carryover to some of the things I’ve done before,” Ryan said. “So, it cuts down on that learning curve in terms of speaking the language quite a bit.”

Ryan called his own plays at times under offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey early in his career.

Smith and Ryan have been working together closely during training camp.

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Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and head coach Arthur Smith confer during the fourth day of training camp practice Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and head coach Arthur Smith confer during the fourth day of training camp practice Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and head coach Arthur Smith confer during the fourth day of training camp practice Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

“Guys are different with how quick they get plays in or what they want from a tempo standpoint,” Ryan said. “His have been pretty quick. They are quick in practice and it’s very similar to what you’re getting in practice to what I’ve heard on (exhibition) game nights.”

Ryan is fine with going into the regular season with no exhibition snaps. In 2019, he played 61 exhibition season snaps in two of the five games.

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“You grow up your whole life, prior to getting into the NFL and it’s just scrimmages before you get to the real games, you know,” Ryan said. “Same thing in college. Same thing we did last year with COVID-19. We didn’t have real (exhibition) season work. So, you just get yourself ready to go.”

2. Establishing a rushing attack: The Falcons’ rushing attack has been dormant since the 2017 season when they rushed for 115.4 yards per game and were ranked 13th in the league.

Last season, the Falcons averaged 95.8 yards per game, which ranked 27th. They averaged 85.1 yards per game in 2019, which ranked 30th.

The Falcons have overhauled the backfield, while staying with three of the five starters along the offensive line.

They will count on Mike Davis, Cordarrelle Patterson and Wayne Gallman as the three running backs. Fullback Keith Smith will mostly serve as a lead blocker.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

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Cordarrelle Patterson, a wide receiver and kick returner with the Falcons, has been taking snaps at running back.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

Matt Hennessy will take over for Alex Mack at center, while rookie Jalen Mayfield is slated to start at left guard, which has been a revolving door since Andy Levitre retired after the 2018 season.

“I think confidence,” Hennessy said about how he’s improved. “Just a guy who’s a lot more confident in myself as far as technique, scheme and physically. That’s the biggest thing.”

The Falcons are returning to the heavy outside zone rushing attack that former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan used in 2016 with the help of running backs coach Bobby Turner. The Falcons rushed for 120.5 yards, which ranked fifth.

Davis has never opened the season as his team’s lead back. Patterson is a converted wide receiver and Gallman was signed after he was cut by San Francisco. Gallman, who played at Grayson High and Clemson, has played in 53 games and made 14 starters.

Davis rushed 165 times for 642 yards and scored six touchdowns for the Panthers last season. He added 59 catches for 373 yards and two touchdowns.

“Mike does play the game physical with breaking tackles,” Falcons running backs coach Desmond Kitchings said. “I think Mike also has some very good short-area change of direction and the ability to make guys miss in the open field.”

Gallman, the former fourth-round pick of the Giants, has averaged 4.3 yards per carry over his career.

3. Protecting Ryan: The Falcons’ pass protection numbers have been atrocious.

Behind last season’s shaky unit, Ryan was sacked more than 40 times (41) for the third consecutive season. He also was hit 71 times and hurried on 55 passes.

Hennessy will take over at center for Alex Mack with the hopes of stabilizing the unit.

“I think Matt is doing a good job for us,” Ryan said. “I think playing at the end of the year last year was really good for him. Playing against a couple of really good, quality opponents, too. Just having that experience from being out there.”

Mack, who was a six-time Pro Bowl selection, was not re-signed. He went to the 49ers in free agency.

But he taught Hennessy a few lessons before he left.

“He’s really calm,” Ryan said of Hennessy. “Similar to Alex in that way. Both of those guys on the field are very calm. They just operate.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

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Falcons offensive lineman Matt Hennessy comments on his focus leading into Week 1 against the Eagles.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

Also, Mayfield, a rookie, steps in at left guard after Josh Andrews suffered a broken hand.

Left tackle Jake Matthews, right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary are returning starters.

Smith will try to help the line out by leaning on the rushing attack and keeping them out of obvious passing situations.

Lindstrom and Matthews are solid, while McGary needs to step his game up.

Last season, McGary cut his sacks-allowed from 13.5 to 1.5. He had a 58.2 (F) grade overall, according to Pro Football Focus. McGary also must cut down on his missed blocks. His blown-block rate was fourth highest among right tackles, according to Football Outsiders.

4. Replacing Julio Jones: Julio Jones, the most dynamic pass-catcher in Falcons history, was traded to the Titans in June.

Over 10 seasons, Jones had 848 receptions for 12,896 yards, both team records. He leaves a void in the offense.

However, since Jones as out for most of the games last season and rarely practiced, wide receivers Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage, have started this project.

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Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley talks about the lessons imparted by former teammate Julio Jones and his ascension to No. 1 receiver.

Ridley had 90 catches for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns last season. In games that Jones didn’t play, Ridley averaged over 100 yards receiving.

Gage, who was strong as the slot receiver, will be the No. 2 wide receiver. He had 72 catches for 786 yards and four touchdowns in 2020.

Olamide Zaccheaus is the No. 3 wide receiver and the Falcons have rookie tight end Kyle Pitts.

5. Secondary must come together: The Falcons’ secondary has been revamped at right cornerback and at both safety positions.

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Fabian Moreau is set to start at right cornerback. Duron Harmon at strong safety and Erik Harris at free safety.

Isaiah Oliver appears to have won the nickel back position, while Richie Grant, the second-round draft pick, learns the new defense.

“It’s coming,” Harmon said. “We’re working.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

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Falcons safety Duron Harmon comments on how the team has come together ahead of Week 1 matchup.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

With so many new players, they have tried to bond on and off the field.

“We all went to dinner,” Harmon said. “Guys stick around each other in the locker room. Guys getting around each other’s family and stuff like that. Just to do team building.”

Harmon, a three-time Super Bowl winner, believes the team building is working.

“It’s one thing to go to work with somebody each and every day,” Harmon said. “It’s another thing to go to work and see them outside of the building and have families around. It builds a camaraderie that you can’t just make up.

“At the end of the day, if I’m playing for my teammate next to me, that’s one thing. But if I’m also playing for his wife and his kids, it’s a different type of sacrifice. That’s what you want from a really good team stand point.”

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