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Bair: Falcons must find passing efficiency to realize offensive potential under Arthur Smith

Hard-running Atlanta attack needs help through air for Falcons emerge victorious more often than not

NEW ORLEANS – The Falcons ran for 231 yards against New Orleans, to the tune of 5.9 yards per carry, and still lost.

You don't see that often. Teams running that much and that well typically emerge with victory, but wasn't the case on Sunday. The Falcons lost another close one, 21-18, to the rival Saints at Caesers Superdome.


That's not the first time that has happened, either. The Falcons have rushed for at least 200 yards four times. They are 1-3 in those games, which were all decided by one score.

Each instance is different, but there is a unifying factor here. The passing game didn't pull its weight.

The air attack has produced positive flashpoints but hasn't been consistent enough this season to take this offense to the next level.

Say what you want about an under-construction defense that has its flaws and talent deficiencies.

They are keeping the Falcons in games of late. In fact, the defense has allowed 21 points or less in four of the last six games, never allowing more than 25 in that span.

That's putting your team in position to win. The Falcons are 1-5 in those contests, winning once in a 27-24 victory over Chicago.

The running game is consistently impactful, with dominant showings sprinkled into that mix. This team can turn a corner if Arthur Smith, his staff and his players can get the passing game worked out.

It wasn't good enough under Marcus Mariota, which is why the Falcons made an appropriate quarterback switch. It wasn't good enough in Desmond Ridder's NFL debut, where the rookie threw for just 97 yards.

That's not just on the quarterback. It's the whole operation, and the Falcons were close to executing just well enough to win or tie a game. Ridder threw a strike to Drake London on 4th-and-5 with roughly two minutes left, but the USC product lost a fumble ever-so-close to game-tying field goal range that cut the comeback short.

Look, I get it's a team game and sometimes one unit needs to help another. This also isn't me heaping blame and pointing fingers. This team is what it is at this point. The Falcons are a competitive, spirited and resilient bunch better than last year's group no matter what the records say, with an offense headed in the right direction.

It is not there yet and won't be until the Falcons can punish teams for loading up the box, take relatively efficient deep shots and perform well on critical downs of medium to longer distances.

That's when, from a glass-half-full perspective, this offense can be scary and the Falcons will be tough to beat. Despite unwelcome outcomes, there's faith in Smith's system and what the Falcons are building in attack.

Chris Lindstrom expressed that with great conviction after the latest tough loss.

"I think there's belief in what we're doing on offense and there's faith that everything is going to come together," the star right guard said. "Our job up front is to keep straining in the run game and communicate well in pass protection to give those [skill] guys time to make big plays. They're doing a good job, but we have to keep working to get better week in and week out."

The run game will be, as Lindstrom later put it, "the foundation we want to build upon." With the talent up front, in the backfield and in Smith's mind, there's real confidence efficient running will be Falcons offensive bedrock moving forward.

Throwing better, however, can push the Falcons farther and higher and out of the losing-close-game regularity that has defined the season's second half.

"We need to find ways to win these games," Lindstrom said. "Everybody in this locker room knows that. This is not the position where we want to be, but all we can do is come to work. That's the culture around here. There's no quit in this team. There's no bad attitude. Our mentality is that, eventually it's going to break. We have to keep working at it and win these tight games."

Now let's get to the Ridder-ness of it all. It complicates the passing game's evaluation, with a large variable inserted late. He's dealing with a ton right now working into real NFL games. That's why you can't say Sunday's passing effort is worse than what came before. It's a new starting point in the passing game's evaluation.

What Mariota was doing wasn't good enough, and his unique talents didn't offer enough optimism to continue heading in that direction. Too often he made critical, game-changing mistakes you can fairly and accurately pin on the quarterback.

We'll keep breaking down Ridder's performances, with a microscope and from great distance, to see if he can get the passing game going right. Or, at minimum, show subtle signs of progress.

"I told Desmond (on Saturday] that, whether he threw for 300 yards or 100, it wasn't going to define his career," Smith said. "He has a lot to learn. Watching him operate procedure-wise, he has a lot of command. The next step is to continue to find solutions and make plays. It was another close game and we had our chances. We ultimately didn't get it done."

Finding signs of progress, using eye test over the stat sheet, will be a focus of this remaining season. Playoffs aren't even a consideration right now. It's about looking inward and evaluating the quarterback and all of the passing game's components to see what works, what doesn't and how it can improve heading into the third year in Smith's system.

"We just have to figure out a way," London said, 'to get over the hump."

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