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Bair Mail: On Jonnu Smith, Van Jefferson, Dee Alford and Falcons defense getting more sacks

We take a look at pass rush stats and hear from Arthur Smith about the state of the Falcons pass rush in this Wednesday mailbag. 

It has been an interesting start to the Falcons week, now hasn't it? Atlanta secured its third home win as many tries on Sunday with a victory over Houston. Then, two days later, GM Terry Fontenot acquired receiver Van Jefferson and a 2025 seventh-round NFL Draft pick from the L.A. Rams for a 2025 sixth-round pick.

The Falcons will start their practice week Wednesday, shortly after this Bair Mail posts, trying to go 4-2 on the season with a victory over Washington while building off a strong offensive showing against the Texans.

The passing game wasn't perfect but looked pretty darn good, pretty darn close to how you'd draw it up versus Houston, with Desmond Ridder slingin' it, and both Kyle Pitts and Drake London heavily involved.

You're interested in some other standouts on offense and defense in this Bair Mail edition, with some questions about how the pass rush can ramp up. And, of course, we discuss the Jefferson deal as the mailbag rolls on.

Tom Gruber from Cumming, Ga.

Jonnu Smith might be my biggest surprise thus far. I know he was good working with Arthur Smith before, but those years with the Patriots were pretty rough. Why do you think he's playing so well in the early going?

Bair. Tight end Jonnu Smith has become a trusted outlet for Desmond Ridder in shallow and intermediate routes, finding space that's open with London and Pitts working deeper or in different locations and Bijan Robinson a real threat in the flat. And, before we take a pessimist's approach to why he's getting the ball so much, he was active against Houston even when Pitts and London were primary targets.

Smith has been reliable, save an ill-timed fumble on Sunday, showing good hands and an ability to gain tough yards after the catch. He's fourth among NFL tight ends with 246 yards receiving and third with 133 yards after the catch on a 25.5% target share, per Next Gen Stats. All output far exceeds his time in New England -- he never had more than 300 yards in a season with New England -- meaning the Arthur Smith connection is real. So is the trust being developed with Ridder over Jonnu Smith's good start.


Barry Wynn from Rex, Ga.

Now that the Falcons have acquired Van Jefferson it is an admission that Cordarrelle Patterson is not helping much as the Joker. The Falcons have trouble scoring points. 25 points is the highest they have scored. Patterson has not been featured in the last two games. If the front office felt a new addition was needed, then more firepower was needed all along. The media has been deriding the Falcons receiver room for a while. At least they are beginning to address the issue?

Bair: I don't think the Falcons trade for Van Jefferson has anything to do with Cordarrelle Patterson. CP is just two games back after he missed most of the summer and the season's first three games. The Falcons are deliberate about workloads as their players return. There's plenty of evidence of that. Patterson's output and opportunities will come under close examination at some point, but we're not there yet.

Now on to the Van Jefferson deal. I dig it.

Is it a rental? At least at this point, considering the fourth-year receiver is on the final year of his deal. But the Falcons and L.A. Rams are swapping picks two drafts from now, in the late rounds, where the exchange may not be so stark considering how the teams finish in 2024. Those are all pluses for the Falcons, especially if Jefferson works out.

The Falcons are trying to get better and more explosive in the short term and Jefferson will enjoy a fresh start after his opportunities dwindled some in L.A. The Florida product should see some favorable matchups with Drake London and Kyle Pitts out there and could provide a deep threat that stretches the field some.

His last big year came in 2021, so a return to his old form is no lock. Fans should manage immediate expectations as he learns a new offensive language and scheme. Might take him a few weeks to get ramped up, but he'll fortify depth and make the Falcons tougher to defend. He'll also be motivated to show well before hitting the open market (or earning an extension here).


Joe Rogers from Rincon, Ga.

The Falcons defense is definitely better than we have seen in a long time, and they are putting pressure on the QB but just not getting there yet. Do you believe the sacks will come?

Bair: I do, Joe. That said, I need to see some proof after seeing not enough major, game-changing plays created. I will say the Falcons are more talented throughout the defensive front than recent seasons. You can see Bud Dupree starting to turn it on. The interior is ferocious with David Onyemata and Grady Jarrett. Kaden Elliss can attack from the linebacker spot and we've seen Richie Grant come strong as a blitzer.

It isn't good, though, that the Falcons are tied for last in the NFL with five sacks and that eight individuals have more sacks than the entire Atlanta defense. They're also last in quarterback pressure percentage through five games, per Next Gen Stats.

It's time to get home a little more, and the Falcons defense will have opportunities Sunday against a Washington front that hasn't been great in pass protection. I do think it's more important to be stout against the run and good on critical downs, as the Falcons have.

Now, enough from me. Here's what Arthur Smith had to say on the matter.

"I think if you're affecting the passer, it doesn't matter," Smith said. "The problem is, where it sticks out, is if you're not getting any pressure on him. Again, sacks are great. Obviously, you want them because it's negative plays, ball doesn't even go in the air. But I think right now, we're doing a really good job of affecting the quarterback. And there's some give and take. Like yesterday, we dropped a little bit more in coverage, showed some different looks that we hadn't even showed, so it's give and take.

"Sometimes, we only had a three-man rush, and we still made the ball come out pretty quickly. I think if you get hung up on that one number, you could go chasing things and it can screw up your rush plans and what you're really trying to do and depending on the quarterback you're trying to attack. We've just got to continue to affect the quarterback, and clearly, we're doing that. I think naturally, more will happen."


Heath Metzler from Rome, Ga.

I saw Dee Alford got some love from Jason McCourty for how he did against the Texans and throughout the season. He has turned into a solid player for us.

Bair: I spoke with Dee Alford for a little while the Thursday before the Texans game about why he has enjoyed the focus on the slot. His answer was interesting: the challenge. The challenge of dealing with a two-way go, the challenge of playing the run and the challenge of being part defensive back and part linebacker. He isn't the biggest dude at 5-foot-11 (maybe) and 175 pounds, but he doesn't mind mixing it up.

He was awesome against the Texans, with six tackles and two run stuffs and 58.5 passer rating when targeted. Despite being targeted 11 times, he allowed just five catches for 49 yards on 25 coverage snaps, per Next Gen Stats.

He's allowing just 9.0 yards per reception through five games. He has 11 defensive stops in five games and has solidified a somewhat uncertain position entering training camp. That's a positive development for a strong secondary that plays aggressive and flies to the ball.

Call for questions

Let's re-fill the mailbag right here for inclusion in Friday's mailbag.

Take a monochrome look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Houston Texans during Week 5.

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