FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons coach Arthur Smith’s formula for winning this season calls for the team to run the football.
Even without the injured Cordarrelle Patterson, the Falcons (3-4) have the fourth-best rushing attack in the NFL and will lean on it when they face the Panthers (2-5) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
But in the past two drafts, the Falcons selected weapons for their passing game: tight end Kyle Pitts, fourth overall in 2021, and wide receiver Drake London, eighth overall this year.
Pitts, who has played in six games, has been targeted 30 times, with 16 catches for 178 yards and a touchdown.
London, the team’s leading receiver, has 44 targets and has 26 catches for 315 yards and two touchdowns.
With the rushing attack working, a little uptick from the passing game, which ranks 31st in the league, would help the Falcons, who are tied for first place in the NFC South.
“There are certain games where we haven’t had to pass that much,” Smith said. “When you have a lead, that’s where stats can be misleading. Every game you go in there to have balance, and we have plays, and those guys are a big part of our offense.”
But when the Falcons were down 21-0 against the Bengals on Sunday, that would seem to have been the time to open the offense.
The Falcons also fell behind 28-3 to the Rams and 21-0 to Tampa Bay. They came back and made those one-score games.
“Obviously, the games that we’ve lost, we haven’t done a good-enough job, and there’s always things, even when we have won, that maybe, ‘Hey, we could’ve done this a little bit different’ and we look at that every week,” Smith said. “But when you get into some of these four-minute situations, the numbers are going to get skewed.”
Smith noted the Cleveland game was a low-possession game that played to the benefit of the Falcons. The Cincinnati game was not a low-possession game, to the detriment of the Falcons, who didn’t have a lot of plays.
Smith will be the first to say the Falcons didn’t draft Pitts and London for their blocking prowess.
“We’ve got to do a better job all around, in all three phases,” Smith said. “It’ll be different week to week with how we try to attack, but the ultimate goal is to win, whether we throw it 50 times or we run it 50 times or this guy catches 15 balls, or he catches one for a touchdown on a critical third down.”
Pitts’ best statistical game was against Seattle, when he had eight targets and caught five passes for 87 yards in the 27-23 win Sept. 25. He caught three of five targets for 9 yards in the 35-17 loss to the Bengals.
“I don’t even think about being selfish because that’s not me,” Pitts said. “I just go out there and play.”
Pitts is fine with the ground-and-pound attack, which helps to get the defense some rest.
“I just say that we play our style of football and keep churning it out,” Pitts said.
Pitts is not watching his stats.
“We work together as a team,” Pitts said. “It’s about us. It’s about us putting things together and trying to go out there and score.”
With Pitts receiving a lot of attention early, London caught 13 of 19 targets in the first two games for 160 yards and a touchdown.
He has made 13 catches over the past five games and had only one catch, for 9 yards, against the Bengals.
“I’ve got to go through all of this,” London said. “I’ve got to go through everything. Just getting my feet wet. That’s what I’m trying to do, and I think I’m doing a swell job right now.”
London isn’t worried about his numbers, either.
“It’s just how the game has been going,” London said. “The flow of the game. We have been running through people’s faces, and we are going to keep on doing that until they stop us.”
London believes the ball will start to find him again.
“Just when we get our opportunities, we have to make the best of them,” London said. “Just that trust and discipline in our routes, execution and all of that stuff, it’s going to go a long way.”
Quarterback Marcus Mariota is completing 61.3% of his passes.
“No doubt, we got to get those guys the ball,” Mariota said. “We got to find ways to create opportunities for them, but for us, whatever way is going to help us win.”
Neither Pitts nor London has been in Mariota’s ear asking for more action.
“What’s pretty cool about these guys is they’re unselfish; they’re willing to do anything,” Mariota said. “So, whatever the coaches feel is best for this team, we’re going to do.”
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The Bow Tie Chronicles
Atlanta Falcons 2022 schedule
Sept. 11: Saints 27, Falcons 26
Sept. 18: Rams 31, Falcons 27
Sept. 25 Falcons 27, Seahawks 23
Oct. 2 Falcons 23, Browns 20
Oct. 9 Buccaneers 21, Falcons 15
Oct. 16 Falcons 28, 49ers 14
Oct. 23 Bengals 35, Falcons 17
Oct. 30 vs. Carolina, 1 p.m.
Nov. 6 vs. Los Angeles Chargers, 1 p.m.
Nov. 10 at Carolina, 8:15 p.m.
Nov. 20 vs. Chicago, 1 p.m.
Nov. 27 at Washington, 1 p.m.
Dec. 4 vs. Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Dec. 18 at New Orleans, TBD
Dec. 24 at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Jan. 1 vs. Arizona, 1 p.m.
Jan. 8 vs. Tampa Bay, TBD
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