Atlanta Falcons 2021 Team Study

Part 21 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 20 here: Houston Texans. Part 22 now available: New Orleans Saints.


Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
4.76 -0.14 19th

Offensive Eff. Rating (black and red) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
25th 30th 14th

The Falcons brought in Arthur Smith in the hopes he could jumpstart their offense after he led one of the NFL’s more efficient offenses in 2020. But he unfortunately inherited a team on its way down. The Falcons traded Julio Jones in the offseason and Calvin Ridley played just five games before calling it a season for non-injury reasons. So both elements of arguably the most talented 1-2 punch at wide receiver were gone by Week 6 and they were left with underwhelming journeymen and a rookie tight end. They tried their best.

Between Cordarrelle Patterson, a 30-year old hybrid player who had never eclipsed 250 rushing yards in a season before 2021, and Mike Davis, a career 3.7 yards per carry running back, they had no run game either. On top of that, they faced the 4th-toughest schedule of opposing defenses on the season. Matt Ryan was constantly under pressure, forcing a low-depth passing game. These passes predictably did not generate a lot of yards after the catch, given the weapons he was throwing to. This was a really difficult situation for Ryan and Arthur Smith.

Despite these conditions, Ryan evaded pressure extremely well. He allowed the 9th-fewest sacks per pressure and delivered the 11th-best on-target percentage on his throws. In other words, he was under pressure but avoiding sacks and throwing accurately. Despite a low-depth passing game, the Falcons led the NFL in the percentage of total yards obtained through the air (versus on the ground or after the catch). These stats confirm what I saw on film: a good quarterback doing his best with a bad situation.

With no run game to speak of, the Falcons were simply unable to take advantage against teams that allowed for successful run games. Chart A shows the Falcons’ Adjusted Effectiveness on offense (which measures relative performance) against each opponent ranked by its adjusted line yards allowed to opposing ground games. Teams on the left typically won on the defensive line and shut down good run games, whereas teams on the right were vulnerable to yards before contact. The Falcons played four bad games - factoring in the quality of opponent - against the Patriots, Jags, Lions, and Giants. They simply lacked the running back talent to capitalize.

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent adjusted line yards allowed on the season.
*Adjusted Line Yards data from Football Outsiders.

Ultimately, the offense was held together by Matt Ryan. He is not washed up. He may look older than his age but he's only 36. He has never been an elite quarterback but he can read defenses fairly well and throw all the routes. He can put clutch throws right on the money, and still threw accurately up to 40 yards downfield last season. He did the best he could with the weapons he had. Three of the Falcons' seven wins involved Ryan delivering in the clutch to set up a winning field goal as time expired. They probably didn't deserve to be 7-10 based on their point differential, but having a clutch quarterback can swing those close games. Now he has left town to join the Colts.

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