Despite opening the season with three losses in their first four weeks, all was calm for the Atlanta Falcons. With a new general manager (Terry Fontenot) and head coach (Arthur Smith) in place, expectations scraped the floor for a roster highlighted by an aging quarterback in Matt Ryan and a sparkling new in-line talent in No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts. In a division captained by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with quarterback changes in New Orleans and Carolina, the Falcons have quickly accelerated their rebuild, proving to be a potential thorn in the side of the Buccaneers through nine weeks.
At 4-4, no one expected Atlanta to be here. After an opening week loss to the talent-depleted Philadelphia Eagles and a Week 2 drubbing at the hands of the defending champion Buccaneers, Atlanta looked well on their way to once again preparing early for the forthcoming spring. Following the loss of franchise cornerstone Julio Jones and a midseason absence from Calvin Ridley, the Falcons haven’t just managed to stay afloat, but they’re thriving, playing inspired football to the tune of a .500 record as we enter the third quarter of the 2021 season.
Jones' departure ushered in a new era of Falcons football. With Fontenot and Smith in place, the longtime Falcons wideout in Jones opted for greener pastures by way of the Tennessee Titans. With new faces in the front office and multiple departures on both sides of the football from impact starters last fall, Cordarrelle Patterson, Tajae Sharpe, and Olamide Zaccheaus have been tasked with not just filling the target share left by that of Jones but Ridley as well, after a personal decision has led to his absence the last few weeks.
With four pit stops in the last five years, Patterson has been nothing short of a godsend for the Ryan-led offense. A multi-faceted talent who initially made his name in the return game, his progression into Atlanta’s de facto RB1 and WR1 has seen the Falcons score 27 or more points in four of the last five weeks—much of their success can be attributed to Patterson, who is on track to shatter his career highs in all major offensive categories.
On the boundary, it’s been a changing of the guard as Sharpe and Zaccheaus have been inserted into larger roles. Two similarly built wideouts, their progression has introduced a newfound kick of energy into Ryan’s game. Sharpe, a fifth-rounder of the Titans in 2016, and Zaccheaus, a former UDFA by way of the University of Virginia, have combined for 29 catches, 342 yards, and three touchdowns. And while surely their numbers won’t blow anyone away, a wideout group now headlined by Russell Gage has presented an entirely new skeleton of talent for Ryan to use at his disposal.
And yet, I haven’t mentioned Pitts, who’s currently producing at a level in which the league has ever seen from a first-year tight end. The first non-QB taken in April’s draft, Pitts has worked away from his early-season struggles, as he currently leads all Falcons pass-catchers in receptions, receiving yards, and yards per game just two months into his professional tenure.
Atlanta’s success hasn’t strictly been limited to the offensive side of the ball either, as one of the league’s worst defenses from last fall has by no means been an impenetrable force, but flashes from linebacker Foyesade Oluokon alongside Deion Jones has resulted in the Falcons’ top-10 ranking for total defense—they’re also the seventh-stingiest pass defense in all of football.
At 4-4, it’s not time to alert the masses or dramatically alter any season-long projections, but the Falcons are playing good football, and for now, that should be more than enough for a long-overdue pat on the back.
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