In Week 1, the Atlanta Falcons were blown out 32-6 against the Philadelphia Eagles. Now entering Week 10, the Falcons are still just 4-4 but sit as the seventh seed in the NFC and appear to be a team starting to find its way on offense — especially this past week, as Falcons picked up a 27-25 victory over the New Orleans Saints.

Since Atlanta’s Week 5 bye, the Falcons rank eighth in dropback EPA and sixth in passing success rate, per rbsdm.com. It might have taken a bit, but the Falcons are starting to put the pieces together and head coach Arthur Smith is combining the strengths of the players with the structure of his offense.

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With the Tennessee Titans, Smith conducted a heavy-under center offense that used play-action to open up the intermediate middle of the field. While that meshed with some of what Matt Ryan found success doing during his 2016 MVP season under Kyle Shanahan and the Falcons went in that direction early in the season, Atlanta has stepped back from that since their bye. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Falcons were 50% under center from Weeks 1-5 but have been in shotgun on 59% of their offensive snaps.

With more of the offense based from shotgun, the Falcons haven’t gone crazy with play-action. They’ve actually gone from 18% pre-bye to 16% post-bye. They’ve gone around that by picking up the use of pre-snap motion from 44% before the bye to 56% after. The biggest shift, though, might just be the overall aggressiveness of the offense.

In the simplest sense, the Falcons have started to push the ball down the field more often. Over the first five weeks of the season, Ryan’s average pass traveled 6.3 yards past the line of scrimmage. That aDOT ranked 32nd of 33 quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts during that time. Over the past three weeks, Ryan’s aDOT is 8.5, which ranks eighth of 29 quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts. The Falcons were one of the worst teams at creating explosive passing plays early in the season (31st, 7%), but they’re up to 11% (11th) since their bye.

Part of that stems from Ryan getting better when going deep. From Weeks 1-5, Ryan was 3-of-11 for 102 yards on throws that went at least 20 air yards. From Weeks 7-9, Ryan went 9-of-13 for 351 yards. It’s not just that the Falcons are going deep more often, it’s that they’re getting better at creating openings for those types of throws.

Against New Orleans, Atlanta came out of the gates looking to go deep. The first play from scrimmage lined Kyle Pitts out wide against Marshon Lattimore. Pitts stuttered off the line and got around Lattimore to work himself open, but dropped the pass that could have been a big play to start the game.

 

 

It’s taken a bit to get Pitts going and used as the unicorn he is at the tight end position, but he’s started to be unleashed all over the formation. Pitts has the ability to line up in the slot and outside but as defenses are more apt to line up cornerbacks against him (see, Stephon Gilmore in Week 8), the Falcons used Pitts in-line more often in Week 9. But when they did have him outside, they still worked routes to create space against the coverage.

They also used Pitts’s versatility to open up opportunities for other players. From 22 personnel on a second-and-8 in the third quarter, Pitts motioned from the left side of the offense to the wide on the right. That bumped Lattimore out into coverage against Pitts and left safety Marcus Williams (43) responsible for slot receiver Olamide Zaccheaus. Zaccheaus started his route to the inside but broke outside to a ton of open space for a 49-yard gain.

 

 

The versatility for Pitts has also gotten him the ball in different ways. On a first-and-10 in the first quarter, the Falcons came out under center in 12 personnel with Pitts on the outside, but still inside the numbers. With play-action and a fake end-around action from the slot receiver on Pitts’s side, Lattimore played with outside leverage to cut off the out-breaking route. The Falcons sent Pitts across the middle of the field and there was a ton of open space with the second-level defenders drawn to the motion in the backfield. As Ryan fled the pocket, he had an easy throw to Pitts for a 39-yard gain.

 

 

Inside two minutes in the first half, the Falcons took the opposite approach on a third-and-5. Pitts lined up as the No. 3 inside receiver on the trips side from empty. Atlanta caught New Orleans in a corner blitz from that side, which forced the linebacker from the opposite A-gap to drop into coverage on Pitts. As Pitts broke to the outside, it was impossible for the defender to get close in coverage. Pitts had room for a 16-yard gain that helped set up a touchdown to go up 10-0 at the half.

 

 

It also got to a point where the Falcons zeroed in on Pitts. On that same two-minute drive, Pitts was in-line on the trips side of an empty set on third-and-2. Instead of Pitts chipping on his way out to the route, Cam Jordan went out of his way to jam Pitts at the line before he started his pass rush. Meanwhile, Russell Gage ran underneath his defender and the safety crossing to take Pitts in the flat for an open 20-yard gain.

 

 

The Falcons went hard into those empty sets against the Saints and it helped spread the field horizontally as they attacked vertically.

Cordarelle Patterson has been a key piece to that equation with the ability to move outside and win in those packages.

On a third-and-9 on Atlanta’s first drive of the game, that came out in empty and Patterson was matched up on the outside against linebacker Kwon Alexander. Patterson ran a quick fake off the line and got well behind Alexander for a 34-yard gain.

 

 

Atlanta went back to Patterson on the final drive of the game and went to empty on first-and-10. This time, Patterson was lined up against Paulson Adebo. Again, Patterson got behind the corner down the sideline for a 64-yard pass that set up the game-winning field goal.

 

 

This was a significant change in both rate and aggressiveness in empty for the Falcons this season.

Matt Ryan From Empty, 2021

WeekOpp.AttComp%Y/AAvg Throw Depth
1Eagles3100.0%9.34.7
2Buccaneers683.3%54
3Giants366.7%7.74.3
4Football Team7100.0%8.76.1
5Jets666.7%6.86.3
7Dolphins771.4%53.9
8Panthers30.0%09.3
9Saints988.9%18.810.8

Atlanta’s offense might not look like what many expected heading into the season — and given how different it already looks from the opening game of the season, count Arthur Smith as one of them — but the Falcons are getting their pieces into place and that could be a fun development with the types of players Atlanta is rolling out.