Uneven Falcons season, chance to rebuild

Desmond Ridder, quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons after replacing Marcus Mariota, prepares to throw a pass. // Photo courtesy of Chris Graythen via Getty Images

In the 2022 season, the Falcons were finally able to beat Tom Brady to finish the season on a high note. 2022 was an up-and-down season that concluded with a 7-10 finish, fourth place in a struggling NFC South division and no playoffs for the fifth season in a row. 

However, that playoff streak could have easily been broken. Three out of the four teams in the NFC South finished at 7-10, and the Buccaneers only won the division with a record of 8-9. If one or two of their eight one-score losses had swung the other way, the Falcons could have matched up with the Cowboys in the Monday, Jan. 16 Wild Card Round as the fourth seed and division winners. 

Considering the changes the Falcons went through prior to the season, they deserve some credit for not completely bottoming out. For the first time since 2008, quarterback Matt Ryan was not the Week 1 starter for the Falcons. His Falcons career, spanning four Pro Bowls, one All-Pro nod, one MVP award and a Super Bowl LI appearance, ended with a trade to the Indianapolis Colts. 

He was replaced by former Raiders backup quarterback Marcus Mariota, who seemed like a nice fit for the rushing offense coordinated by Falcons head coach Arthur Smith. Mariota was also expected to benefit from receiver Calvin Ridley’s return to the team after he stepped away from the 2021 campaign to focus on his mental health. However, Ridley was suspended for the entire 2022 season due to gambling on NFL games and was unceremoniously shipped to the Jacksonville Jaguars mid-season. On defense, the Falcons cut pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr., who did not produce much but played a lot of snaps. They hoped to surround lockdown corner A.J. Terrell and disruptive defensive tackle Grady Jarrett with better pieces going into the 2022 season. 

Losing Ridley forced the Falcons to draft USC wide receiver Drake London with the eighth overall pick. On paper, London’s 6’4” frame complemented rising star tight end Kyle Pitts as big aerial threats, opening defenses up for Mariota’s running ability and versatile running back/receiver Cordarrelle Patterson to gash them on the ground. They also snagged BYU running back Tyler Allgeier, who stepped in after a Week 5 injury to Patterson and earned more carries on the way to a historic season for Atlanta. He ended the season with 1,035 rushing yards and the Falcons record for the most rushing yards by a rookie. To backup Mariota, Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder was taken in the third round. On defense, they added pass rusher Arnold Ebiketie from Penn State and Montana State linebacker Troy Andersen, both of whom showed promising flashes in their rookie seasons. In free agency, they added veteran cornerback Casey Hayward to complement Terrell. 

In the season opener, the Falcons dropped a close game to the rival Saints largely due to mistakes, allowing the Saints to erase a 16-point lead aided by penalties and a conservative Arthur Smith punt. They came up short against the Rams a week later.

The team pulled off an impressive first win of the season over the eventual playoff-bound Seahawks, where Patterson dominated en route to NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. In Week 4, the Falcons were able to ride their running game to a victory against the Browns. Now 2-2 heading into a showdown with a formidable Buccaneers team, the Falcons proved competitive but started too slow to win. Fortunately for them, they were able to channel that frustration into an upset 28-14 win over the future NFC West division champion San Francisco 49ers. This was a high point of the season — Mariota was efficient and accurate, Pitts scored his first career touchdown in Atlanta and the much-maligned Atlanta defense shut down one of the best offenses in football. This impressive performance was followed up with a thrashing at the hands of the Bengals, whose receivers tore through the secondary and powered a 35-17 win over the overmatched Falcons. In Week 8, the Panthers blew two chances to win on missed kicks, leading to the Falcons eking out a win in overtime, 37-34. However, this win would be followed by a series of games where the Falcons offense petered out and the defense could not do enough. Losses to both the Chargers and the Panthers, a narrow win over the Bears and a crushing loss to a middling Commanders team were all marked by poor to mediocre play from Mariota. He got one final chance against an unspectacular Steelers team and sealed a Falcons loss by throwing an interception. Ridder took over after Mariota stepped away from the team, ending his 2022 season with knee surgery and going on injured reserve. Ridder did not fare much better than Mariota in his debut against the Saints, but he kept the Falcons in the game until London fumbled to lose the game. Ridder — and the team — looked slightly better against Baltimore and Arizona, but by then, the Falcons were already eliminated from playoff contention. The team looked fine against a Buccaneers team with nothing to play for, closing the season out with a nice rushing performance from Allgeier and two-touchdown game from Ridder. While the season fizzled out, there are definite positives for Atlanta to build on. London and Allgeier both look like building blocks on the offense. Allgeier ran efficiently down the stretch, carrying the running game since Patterson did not return from his injury as the same player. Allgeier consistently broke the first tackle attempt by defenders. Atlanta’s rushing offense actually ranked third in the league, which was aided by an improved offensive line. Right guard Chris Lindstrom vaulted into the top five at his position in both run blocking and pass protection while right tackle Kaleb McGary bulldozed defenders to open up holes for Allgeier. London was a contested catch machine for Atlanta, winning 53% of his tough catches. However, the synergy with Pitts did not play out as planned as the tight end’s season ended in Week 11. 

Defensively, the Falcons pass rush was the second-worst unit in football. The defense ranked bottom-five league-wide, especially through the air. Terrell declined from his elite play last year due to injuries and Hayward’s season ended in Week 6 due to a shoulder injury. 

Going into the offseason, the Falcons have pressing questions at edge rusher, defensive tackle, a number two cornerback and linebacker. 

They will need to revamp this defense with the eighth overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft and about $80 million in cap space. There is also a discussion to be had if that pick should be spent on a quarterback, seeing as how Ridder did not definitively stake his claim to the job. 

Hopefully, they can build upon this season and bring playoff football back to Atlanta in 2023.