Falcons Stay in the Hunt on the Strength of Matt Ryan and Versatile Receivers

The Atlanta Falcons, who were left for dead after two bad losses to start the season, have been playing some pretty decent football of late. Their win against the Saints in Week 9 brought their record to 4-4. If the playoffs started today, they’d be in.

Not only is Matt Ryan playing extremely well (69.5 Comp %, 13 TD, 3 INT, 106.1 QB rating in his last 6 games), but Arthur Smith is deploying his unique players in ways that are giving the Falcons a distinct advantage.

Even without Calvin Ridley, the Falcons have versatile weapons that can put the defense on its heels. “Running Back” Cordarrelle Patterson and Tight End Kyle Pitts are the Swiss-Army Knives that create matchup issues.

Both players, while listed at other positions, might as well be wide receivers based on their skill-sets. That means when the Falcons deploy their “11” personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), they have the flexibility to treat the package as a 5 wide-receiver set to get the advantage if the defense treats Patterson or Pitts as they’re listed on the lineup card.

Against the Saints in Week 9, Atlanta generated several big plays out of this grouping.

On their very first drive, the Falcons faced a 3rd-and-9. They utilized an empty set with Pitts in the slot to the left and Patterson on the perimeter to the right. The Saints matched up to Patterson on the outside with linebacker Kwon Alexander, meaning they were treating him like a running back.

2021Wk9ATLONOD_Weapons_1
Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

You never want to put a linebacker alone on the perimeter in man coverage against a wide receiver, but that’s effectively what the Saints did here. Ryan recognized the mismatch and attacked it for 34 yards.

On Atlanta’s final drive, Ryan connected with Patterson for 64 yards to set up the game-winning field goal. The Falcons again went with this 11-personnel/”5-wide receiver” look. This time, the Saints weren’t going to get burned with Patterson on a linebacker. So they put a cornerback over him. It didn’t matter:

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Patterson might be listed as a running back, but he’s a wide receiver when the Falcons want him to be, and that gives Atlanta so many options.

Arthur Smith is likely going to find more ways to utilize Patterson and Pitts as the season progresses. In this game, he went with lots of no huddle to try and catch New Orleans in a personnel package that favored the Falcons. Even when the Saints were able to sub, getting to the line quickly to snap the ball put pressure on New Orleans to quickly identify where players were lined up and then get into position quickly. That’s what happened on the first play shown above. The no huddle may have led to New Orleans overlooking the fact that their linebacker was following a wide receiver out to the perimeter.

We wrote this offseason about how much of an impact a versatile player like Kyle Pitts can make. He has aligned all over the formation through his first 8 games this season. According to Pro Football Focus, he has spent 27% of his snaps inline as a traditional tight end, 42.3% in the slot, and 30.7% on the perimeter.

Pitts has seen favorable matchups no matter where he’s aligned, and his presence on the field can help define the coverage pre-snap for Matt Ryan. Not to mention, he’s doing things you don’t see other tight ends do. Just look at his acceleration on this play:

Tough to distinguish Pitts from a wide receiver. But even when the defense treats him like one by using a cornerback to cover him, it doesn’t stop him from winning. Here he was against cornerback Marshon Lattimore on the first play of the game (top of the screen):

Yes, he dropped that pass, but you can see the ability to get open against any type of defender. Normally, when quarterbacks see their tight end matched up on a cornerback, they look elsewhere. That’s not the case with Pitts.

As the season progresses you’ll start to see Arthur Smith find new and creative ways to deploy his versatile weapons. The Falcons are slowly turning into a matchup nightmare for defenses.

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