JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2021 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.
Up this week:
Atlanta Falcons Digital Managing Editor Scott Bair on the Falcons as they enter Sunday's 2021 Week 12 game against the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville.
Question: The Falcons are 4-6 entering Week 12, having lost their last two games – including a 25-0 Week 11 loss to the New England Patriots. What's the state of the Falcons entering Sunday?
Answer: Head Coach Arthur Smith said it in his Friday press conference: "All is not lost." His locker room and leadership core believe that. They're 4-6. They're not at the bottom of the NFC; they're one game out of the No. 6 seed. That is driving them because they believe they're still looking for that complete game – and if they can put complete games together over consecutive weeks, they can get back in the playoff race.
Q: Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is a 14-year veteran with a Super Bowl in his background. How has he adjusted to a new head coach/approach?
A: He's thriving under Smith's offensive system. There was a learning curve expected because if you look at Ryan's work under [former Falcons offensive coordinator and current San Francisco 49ers Head Coach] Kyle Shanahan, his second season was better than his first. He got off to a successful start this season – and when the offensive line has given him time to work, he has been vintage Matt Ryan. That is when they have won games – when he has been able to work from the pocket, or get outside the pocket and throw downfield to a pretty solid complement of skill players. When Matt Ryan does well, he leads them to victories. Some in the fan base wanted the Falcons to draft and play a rookie quarterback right away, but Ryan has given the Falcons more wins than they would have had otherwise. He has looked really good at times. The last two games don't fall into that pattern. That's because he has been under siege. The Falcons' pass protection must get better and their run-blocking must get better. When those two things happen, this offense can really fly.
Q: When the Falcons are right, what are they offensively.
A: They can take yards in chunks. They can score in the 30s. They use a complement of skill players that is pretty dynamic. [Tight end] Kyle Pitts, the No. 4 overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, is something else; he just is. They call him the unicorn. e's long, fast, tough in traffic – a highlight reel already. Cordarrele Patterson is going through an injury issue. His availability is uncertain, but Arthur Smith has found a way to unlock Patterson in a way no other coach in Patterson's career has done. Even without [wide receiver] Calvin Ridley, who is out with a personal matter, they still have [wide receiver] Russell Gage, they still have [wide receiver] Tajae Sharpe … they have a lot of guys who can move the football in a lot of different ways. Even if their rushing hasn't been terribly efficient, their passing game has – and it's very dangerous, even against good defensives.
Q: Same question for the defense.
A: They're a work in progress. That's not a shock to anyone. Their pass rush has been slow moving. Their combination of rush and coverage hasn't been quite good enough and there have been times their run defense – against Carolina, most specifically – has given up the type of rushing efficiency that isn't productive. Against Dallas, they probably had their worst day because they couldn't stop people on third downs. Even if they give up a lot of yards, they don't give up a lot of points under coordinator Dean Pees – who as we all know from his track record in New England and Baltimore, the guy is a legend. He is slowly implementing his scheme. He has said it's about 30 percent right now. The guy has a big playbook. They made a couple of personnel changes up front that I think have made them a better run defense. [Defensive end] Grady Jarrett can be a problem. He's often blocked like [Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle] Aaron Donald where they put two or three guys on him to try to slow him, which creates opportunities for others. They probably played their best game against New England. So, I think that defenses is invigorated and hoping to build upon what they saw as a positive performance in an otherwise disappointing result on Thursday Night Football.
Q: So overall, it sounds as if Smith is it is getting done what he needs to get done this season.
A: He 100 percent has buy in from this locker room. That was established early. They lost the first two games by multiple scores, but the leadership core found a way to respond and rebound well. Players responded to that. Arthur Smith has said several times, "There are no victims here there; there are no soft souls." He means no one is feeling sorry for themselves that they have lost. They have relied upon themselves, the coaching staff and the roster to dig themselves out of holes. That's why they've been hovering around .500. They haven't put that complete game together and they haven't been consistent enough, but they truly believe that when they are a Matt Ryan-led team and a Matt Ryan-led offense can lead this team to victories that maybe some people may not expect them to earn. All that is because Arthur Smith and Dean Pees, who's so well respected, have gotten the investment from this roster. Now, what they do from here, we don't know.
Q: What does success look like for the Falcons the rest of the season?
A: I think it's all about continued progress more than anything else. The NFL is a zero-sum game. Eventually it will come down to how many wins you get, but ultimately in this first year it's about seeing how this team comes together, how they play together and how they respond to adversity. The characteristic of Arthur Smith's 2021 Falcons is these guys fight and throw haymakers nonstop no matter what the score is and I think that is a solid defining characteristic. What will term this season a success above and beyond wins and losses is if they can look in January and identify a large and young foundation that has developed and increased in size under Arthur Smith. If they can do that and look back at their win total and say they were playing relevant games in December with a chance at that No. 7 seed in the NFC, I'm not sure if you could ask for much more given the salary cap constraints and the relatively thin nature of the roster going back to the summer. This team is going to fight for four quarters no matter the score and this team has a young foundation that is growing and it needs to increase in size as the Falcons try to usher in a new period of sustained success.
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