Happy Friday one and all.
The Atlanta Falcons are coming to town and things are not going great, despite a 4-5 record and being one game out of first place in the NFC South.
We talked with Kevin Knight of The Falcoholic to see what is going on and to prepare you for their matchup with your Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
1. Taylor Heinicke is starting again this week, is this an extended tryout for him or is this just trying to salvage a season where the NFC South is open?
This is Arthur Smith trying to save his job. While Falcons owner Arthur Blank is typically patient, this is the third year of a “3 year plan”—and Atlanta has gone 7-10 twice in the first two years. Smith got a pass for those for a variety of reasons, and I think there’s an argument to be made that he overperformed those years. This year, Smith’s offense has fallen apart: Atlanta is among the league leaders in turnovers, is one of the lowest-scoring offenses in the NFL, and is among the worst teams in the red zone. Considering the investment the team has made in the offense, that’s completely unacceptable. I do think Taylor Heinicke gives the team a more stable offense, and Heinicke is better at handling pressure and making quick decisions with the football. That being said, moving away from Desmond Ridder so early was a bit strange. I’m not sure if a QB change is really going to fix the myriad issues with Smith’s offense, but Atlanta has had two of their highest scoring games with Heinicke at the helm.
2. Speaking of the season, is this a make or break season for Arthur Smith at this point?
I guess I sort of answered this in the above question, but I absolutely believe this is a “playoffs or bust” type of season for Arthur Smith. As I said, I think you could look at Smith’s first two 7-10 seasons as understandable given the team’s roster and salary cap issues. But this was supposed to be the year where things started to come together, and the team went out and spent serious money in free agency to make it happen. The defense has held up their end, last week’s inexplicable game against the Vikings notwithstanding. It’s Smith’s offense that has fallen far short of expectations. Smith hitched his wagon to Desmond Ridder, and Ridder was benched two weeks ago after leading the league in turnovers. The team has scored more with Heinicke, but they haven’t been winning games. There’s also the blatant misuse of the weapons Atlanta has acquired for Smith. Drake London has been the clear WR1 when healthy, but Kyle Pitts is getting fewer targets than Jonnu Smith, and Bijan Robinson has been forced into a 50/50 timeshare with Tyler Allgeier. Jonnu Smith and Tyler Allgeier are both good players, but neither were top-10 picks. His offense, and thus his main contribution to Atlanta, have been the biggest issue in 2023.
3. Local product Bijan Robinson has looked unstoppable at times, but his usage seems to ebb and flow, what are your thoughts on him overall?
Bijan Robinson has looked like a rookie at times, but has ultimately been as good as advertised. The Falcons made him a focal point of the offense early in the season, and have since backed off from that approach. It’s a puzzling decision, to say the least. Bijan is far more dynamic and offers a lot more explosive play ability than Tyler Allgeier, and yet we’ve seen Allgeier get as many or more touches as Bijan in recent weeks. Bijan’s passing game role has also been almost completely eliminated from the offense, as his targets have plummeted. I think you could argue that too much was being put on Bijan’s plate early—Atlanta had him lined up as a receiver and running option routes, which he looked pretty lost on—but not that he wasn’t a big time playmaker in the passing game. It’s just another questionable decision by Arthur Smith, and it’s clearly hurting the offense.
4. Give us an offensive or defensive player that we may not know heading into this game?
On offense, veteran receiver KhaDarel Hodge has emerged as a favorite target for Taylor Heinicke. He’s shown off some impressive yards-after-catch ability in addition to his special teams acumen. On defense, former UDFA linebacker Nate Landman has taken over a starting role after the injury to 2022 second-rounder Troy Andersen. He’s emerged as one of the premier run stuffing linebackers in the NFL—though he’s still shown himself to be vulnerable in coverage against more athletic tight ends. Landman has been a pleasant surprise in a linebacker depth chart that was viewed as being pretty questionable heading into the season.
5. DraftKings Sportsbook’s line has moved from Falcons -2.5 to -1 already with the news of Kyler Murray starting. Do you expect the Falcons to be able to cover this week?
The Falcons always seem to pull out a win when everyone feels like they’ll lose, and this is feeling like one of those weeks. I don’t personally have much faith in this team going forward, but they’ve also played zero clean or complete games this season. Maybe this is the week? Who knows. I’m expecting Arizona to be able to move the ball with the return of Kyler Murray and James Conner, but I think the Falcons squeak out another ugly win. Let’s say, 27-23 Atlanta.