FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Arthur Smith has said time and time again that the objective of an offense is to win games in whatever manner gets the team there. He's said over and over again that if that means throwing the ball 50 times, or running the ball 40 times, whatever production equates to a win? They'll do it.
Prior to the Falcons 35-17 loss to Cincinnati this past Sunday, the Falcons sat at a .500 record at 3-3. What's interesting in that record is that there was an obvious pattern in the type of production that was putting wins on the board for the Falcons.
Going into the Week 7 matchup with the Bengals on the road, whenever Marcus Mariota threw the ball over 25 times, the Falcons lost. They were 0-3 when he did so. Whenever Mariota threw 20 times or less, the Falcons won. They were 3-0 in games where he didn't have to rely on the pass game too often.
By this logic, one could say the Falcons loss to the Bengals (a game in which Mariota threw the ball 13 times) was an outlier of the first seven games of the season.
After Sunday's loss, Smith and the Falcons came under fire nationally having been down by multiple scores, and yet, still running the ball well into the third and fourth quarter.
As Scott Bair addressed in his mail bag earlier in the week, it's not like the Falcons weren't actively trying to move the ball downfield via the pass in the second half. As he pointed out, the Falcons only had 18 plays - total - in the second half. Of those eighteen, he wrote, seven were passes, three were sacks (moments you can infer were drop backs) and three were Mariota runs (not likely to be designed runs for the quarterback).
So, the argument that the Falcons weren't actively attempting to throw the ball and were relying too heavily on the run? This goes against it.
So, perhaps we're asking the wrong questions of the Falcons.
Could it be that the argument and question shouldn't be why the Falcons aren't utilizing the pass game more, or why Smith can't get Drake London and Kyle Pitts more involved.
Could it be that the better question is why the pass game isn't working when they do go to it.
Smith admitted it is a situation where he has to find ways to "get guys involved earlier," but it's not like he's not actively scheming for players like London and Pitts.
That's a fallacy.
The head coach explained why when asked if he has to talk to London about his recent lack of targets. For context: Through the first four games of the season London was targeted 32 times. He had 18 catches for 231 yards. In the last three games of the season, the rookie receiver has been targeted 12 times for eight catches for 84 yards.
Per Smith, "it's not like he's not getting plays called for him."
"It would be one thing if you are just ignoring somebody, and you are on your call sheet just refusing to even try to get him the ball," Smith said. "That hasn't been the case."
From London's perspective, he said it has been an adjustment coming from USC - a pass-heavy offense - to the Falcons - a team that has morphed into a run-first team. But he was very clear in saying, "I'm not mad at it at all."
"At the end of the day, I'm a rookie. I'm still trying to get my feet wet. I'm still trying to learn the game," London said. "They're running the ball a lot and they're passing it a few times, but it's still helping me a lot... I'm not worried about that."
Through the first chunk of games this season, we've already learned a lot about this Falcons offense. To a certain extent, it has started to feel like we're not likely to see the Falcons suddenly become a team that throws the ball 40 times a game the way they once were. With Matt Ryan under center the last three years, the Falcons offense averaged 41 passing attempts in 2019, 39 in 2020 and 33 under Smith in 2021. By comparison, Mariota - seven games into 2022 - is averaging 21 attempts a game.
Talking to Falcons receivers, they say there's an understanding that this is how this offense is going to operate, and there is a certain feeling of making the most of the targets you do get.
"It's like even in short routes you want to get as much YAC as you can... You're doing whatever you can to maximize that opportunity," Olamide Zaccheaus said. "Not only just because you're getting limited targets but because you want to help the team. If we can turn a five yard play into 15 or 20 that helps the team move the ball and change the field. It's little things like that not only personally but as a whole team and offense."
According to Zaccheaus, there is also an understanding that this offense wants to be more balanced, particularly after the loss to the Bengals. There's a trust - he said - between players and coaches that they'll strike that balance.
On this same idea of trust, when asked if he trusts Mariota to get the ball to players like London and Pitts, Smith said point blank: "Yeah. I do."
What's interesting, though, is not necessarily the carryover of specific stats for players from last year to this year, but how their overall production has changed.
Take a player like Zaccheaus as an example. With Ryan as his quarterback, he was targeted (on average) three times a game in 2020 and 2021. With Mariota as his quarterback through seven games? That number still sits at three. The difference, though, is what he's doing with those three targets.
Through seven games in 2022, Zaccheaus is 19-of-22 through the air for 302 yards. Through the same number of games last year he was 10-of-19 for 114 yards.
Now, the opposite side of this coin is the example of Pitts.
Through 17 games in his rookie year, he did average six targets a game. That's not far from where he sits now seven games into 2022, at an average of five targets a game.
The difference for Pitts - like Zaccheaus - is in the production of said targets.
Through seven games this year, Pitts is 16-of-30 for 178 yards. At this point last year, those numbers were doubled: 33-of-50 for 484 yards. In a game like that of Sunday's, where the Falcons are having to work back into a game, that's the production that is missed.
But we're comparing apples and oranges if we try to relate last year's offense to this year's. At this time last year, the Falcons were 3-4, exactly where they find themselves right now, but that's where any comparison stops.
What's going to stand in their way from being better (and more productive than last year) is going to have a foundation in their overall execution. Sunday's loss showed this offense it has to evolve as a vertical threat. It doesn't mean throw the ball 40 times, but it does mean make the most of the 20 times they do throw it.
"We've got to do a better job of executing, regardless of what play is called," Smith said. "There are a lot of little details that go into it, but we can all do better."
We take a monochrome look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Cincinnati Bengals on October 23, 2022.
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