Falcons’ 2021 season review: special teams

Falcons cornerback Chris Williamson (29) defends against wide receiver Frank Darby during the first day in pads at training camp Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Falcons cornerback Chris Williamson (29) defends against wide receiver Frank Darby during the first day in pads at training camp Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of an eight-part position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ 2021 season under first-year coach Arthur Smith. Today: special teams

FLOWERY BRANCH -- Falcons wide receiver Frank Darby had some confessions of a special-teams gunner.

He contributed on special teams, playing 126 snaps (53%), but he received his welcome-to-the-NFL moment in the exhibition season against Cleveland.

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“My first time running down on kick return, I’m trying to get my number,” Darby said. “Boom! He ran right through me. Oh my God. He ran right through me and made the tackle. I looked at the sidelines, wow, this is treacherous. They are coming down fighting mad and ready to go.”

The talkative Darby had nothing to say.

“Just get up, put your head down Frank and walk to the sideline,” Darby said. “There’s nothing to talk about. This is a man’s game.”

The speedy Darby remembers the first time he faced a double block, which is called a vice.

“They called me all types of names, and I said, watch how I beat y’all,” Darby said. “Your job is over. I couldn’t even get down there. I was like oh, man this is different.”

Darby, who was drafted in the sixth round (187th overall) out of Arizona State in 2021, learned his lessons fast. By the ninth game, he was a regular on the coverage units.

“It’s been fun though,” Darby said. “I won some matchups, too. That’s all I would say. They got me, but I’m going to get you back.”

Darby had a tackle and a forced fumble.

Fullback Keith Smith was the leader in special-teams tackles, with eight. Linebacker Mykal Walker, Pro Bowl long snapper Josh Harris and cornerback Avery Williams all had seven special-teams tackles.

In addition to Darby, Williams and running back Qadree Ollison forced fumbles on special teams.

Featuring kicker Younghoe Koo and Harris, the Falcons’ special-teams units finished ranked 23rd overall in the annual special-teams rankings compiled by longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin for the past 43 years.

The league’s 32 teams are ranked in 22 kicking-game categories and assigned points according to their standing – one for best, 32 for worst. The Ravens compiled 241.5 points to finish first and 30.5 better than the runner-up Indianapolis Colts at 272.

The Saints (299.5) finished fifth overall and were the top NFC South team.

The Falcons had 408.5 points and were the second NFC South team, followed by Carolina (428.5, 28th) and Tampa Bay (429, 29th).

The Falcons ranked in the top five in two of the 22 categories. They finished third in field-goal percentage with 93.1% and tied for first in extra-point percentage at 100%. The Saints were last at 81.5% in extra-point percentage.

But it’s unheralded players such as Darby who make up the units.

In college, they are not coming like that in college,” Darby said. “You’re probably just as good as the people running down, but now you know when it’s somebody’s job and they’ve got to feed somebody. They are coming down there to make a play. You better buckle up. I’ve been welcomed to the NFL a couple of times on (special) teams.”

Darby played only 20 snaps from scrimmage on offense.

“I was happy that I was able to build some trust to play on some (special) teams,” Darby said. “Go out there build on my confidence. My whole thing was just work hard and somebody would notice me.”

Darby said there were a few keys to surviving on special teams.

“Understanding the situation, understanding how to keep leverage,” Darby said. “Understanding how to go out there and make a play. When you you’re open and running free, make a play.”

Darby had to learn how to utilize his speed to cut off a side of the field.

“I’m not going to say it was perfect because I still was learning each week,” Darby said. “It was mostly keeping your leverage and that we wanted to tackle them before the 20-yard line.”

Koo, Harris, punter Thomas Morestead and kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson are set to become unrestricted free agents March 16.

Morstead was signed at mid-season to help stabilize the punting situations.

Patterson was taxed too much on offense and didn’t provide many long kickoff returns. Williams showed promise as a punt and kickoff returner.

Falcons’ position-by-position analysis:

Part 1: Running backs

Part 2: Quarterbacks

Part 3: Wide Receivers/Tight ends

Part 4: Offensive line

Part 5: Defensive line

Part 6: Linebackers

Part 7: Secondary

Part 8: Special teams

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