Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith runs an offense that could only be described as an Artistic Smashmouth™ brand of football. It's designed around pounding the rock, using heavy amounts of motion, building the play action passing, a position-less bully ball approach and keeping the overall offense conceptionally simple. Smith is one of the finest offensive minds in football and runs a scheme that shows influence from multiple different teachers.
With the additions of Bijan Robinson, Matthew Bergeron, Mack Hollins and others in the 2023 offseason to build off the Falcons core group including Kyle Pitts, Desmond Ridder, Drake London, Tyler Allgeier, Cordarrelle Patterson and Chris Lindstrom, the Falcons have the guys they really want to have to run this type of scheme. Atlanta's offense should be much improved from what it has been in the past two season with better personnel all around.
Artistic Smashmouth's Roots
"You can't really know where you are going until you know where you have been."- Maya Angelou, famous author
To truly understand an offense, there has to be understanding of what caused the theories behind that offense. And to understand that, there has to be knowledge of the backgrounds to what created this uniquely distinct offense. Arthur Smith is the principle of the offense's creation. Smith as head coach has the final say over everything, but if this is like every other NFL team, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone and wide receivers coach T.J. Yates collaborate to add wrinkles into the design for the passing game while tight ends coach Justin Peelle and offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford help in the creation the running scheme.
Going through the background for Arthur Smith, it's interesting to note that his start comes from coaches who ran a power run scheme with guys like Mike Munchak, Ken Whisenhunt, Joe Gibbs, Mike Mularkey and Russ Grimm highlighting the majority of his early coaching career with the Titans and Washington. He only worked for a year under Matt LaFleur, but it looks to have shaped a lot in his philosophy of how he wants to run the passing game off of heavy play-action. Add in Terry Robiskie's simple but effective approach to the passing game, and it's easy to see where the roots of this offense come from. Smith, like Professor Slughorn from Harry Potter, is a collector of concepts when it comes to his offensive strategies, and he looks to implement all of them.
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone has a much more varied background in terms of schematics. As a player under Chris Palmer's run-and-shoot offense with the Texans to coaching with Mike Munchak and his almost purely grinding run game, his early career was emphasizing the old school theories of the NFL with a power running game and deep passes. It wasn't until he worked for Jay Gruden and Sean McVay in Washington or with Dowell Loggains and Matt Nagy in Chicago that he really started to get exposed to the Bill Walsh tree. This helps him mix in the concepts from both the Holmgren and Shanahan branches of the tree as well as parts of the old school of NFL philosophies on offense.
T.J. Yates was the passing game coordinator in 2021 before being moved over to the wide receivers in 2022. He's going to be an impactful name in the design of the offense because of his past credentials as an NFL quarterback under Gary Kubiak and Dirk Koetter. Coming up in a Shanahan-style offense and then heading to a more traditional old school NFL style offense with heavy screens will shape views on how the ball should be moved around. Getting some impact from his time under Bill O'Brien and Adam Gase with their simplistic, but effective passing concepts really helps shape how he, Ragone and Smith have designed the passing game.
Tight ends coach Justin Peelle and offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford don't have the long backgrounds that the other coaches have. However, Peelle had a lot of time in power schemes with Chan Gailey, Marty Schottenheimer and Mike Mularkey before heading to the Andy Reid-style offense under Doug Pederson. He can bring those concepts into the fold. Add in Ledford's college experience as a coach that doesn't really conform to the traditional NFL line concepts, and the Falcons have some unique things they can do in the running game due to this combination.
The combination of these backgrounds creates a very unique offense rooted heavily in the schemes that Munchak developed for offensive linemen, Shanahan-style passing roots, and a love for play-action that stems from an over-arching Bill Walsh influence on the offense. While the offense on the surface will look old school, it's based in the concepts that will bring the NFL forward. Having a mix of backgrounds also allows for a mix of concepts, even if it's all different flavors of Bill Walsh concepts and parts of his tree that have the driving influence in the scheme.
Artistic Smashmouth Tenet No. 1: Pound the Rock
"You run the football for toughness. You run the ball to tell your opponent that you’re as tough as they are."- Jerry Glanville, former Falcons HC
Arthur Smith lives his life based off of this tenet. Run the ball and smash teams in the mouth as much as possible. However, in 2021, the Falcons only ranked 25th in the NFL in terms of run frequency at just 39 percent. In 2022, in what was more in-line with Smith's philosophy, they ran the ball 55 percent of the time, ranking second. Ideally, the Falcons will try to be somewhere in between those numbers at around 48-50 percent running. The passing game still owns the NFL, but that would place the Falcons still in the top eight teams in run percentage by being in that range.
By running the ball in that level of frequency, the Falcons will be looking to stress defenses by pounding the ball down their throats, but by also stressing them horizontally. Atlanta primarily runs out of an outside zone scheme that is very similar to what Alex Gibbs used to employ from the mid-90's to the late 00's. The whole point of the outside zone is to get the defense stretching to the outside of the formation expecting an outside run and then cutting back to the opposite side of the field. It relies on running backs that have excellent balance and vision. Bijan Robinson, Cordarrelle Patterson and Tyler Allgeier should all eat in the scheme.
The outside zone relies heavily on the offensive linemen to be on the same page. As The Athletic's Nate Tice shows above, the Falcons offensive line is in sync with all of the outside zone concepts. They also run inside zone and power concepts as well, though. By using the outside zone to stretch defenses horizontally, the middle of the field is more open on those inside plays. A big reason for that is the play of center Drew Dalman and right guard Chris Lindstrom. Schematically, an inside zone play will look like this play below:
Tice noted the blocking of Dalman in this play as well. However, look how at the snap the entire team works towards the left on their blocks and then splits right as Cordarrelle Patterson gets to the hole. By having a varied scheme with players who understand how to run the schemes, the Falcons really have a way to stress defenses without even really passing the ball much. This was shown on a drive versus the Browns where Smith took the ball out of then quarterback Marcus Mariota's hands and ran it every single play on the drive to get the team to score a touchdown. Atlanta having a running game that can do that is the main component of the Artistic Smashmouth offense, and a big reason for their success on offense during the 2022 season.
Artistic Smashmouth Tenet No. 2: Motion to Create Pre-Snap Reads
"The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent."- Sun Tzu, The Art of War
The Atlanta Falcons love to use a lot of motion in their offense to create different looks and have a pre-snap read to give to the offense an advantage over the defense. The big reason NFL teams love to use motion—especially within the Mike Shanahan tree—is because it creates personnel mismatches and forces the defense to communicate more than expected. The Falcons run a ton of motion in the running game to create better blocking matchups and leverage. In the plays below, Nate Tice highlights four clips where the Falcons ran with some motion, and it really stressed the Cardinals defense into making some poor run fits.
Another thing that's very noticeable in the plays above are how the Falcons trusted Desmond Ridder to signal to the rest of the offense what the play was. By adding another read before the ball is even snapped, it will help Ridder slow the game down while also causing confusion for the defense. The whole goal of the motion is to confuse the defense while also giving the quarterback a quick read to work off of. This will be even more apparent when the Falcons start incorporating their passing game. Those motions will create mismatches for players like Drake London against a linebacker or Bijan Robinson against a safety.
Per ESPN's Seth Walder in the chart above, the Falcons ranked fifth in motion rate at the time of the snap and third overall in motion percentage. By using so much motion, the Falcons are always trying to confuse opposing teams. Confusion is important for a good offense in the NFL. So in 2023, when the Falcons are running in motion, their goal is to confuse the defense, make things easier for their quarterback and create mismatches with their personnel for big gains. As Kyle Pitts slides from an in-line tight end spot to the opposite slot spot only to have a linebacker man-to-man against him, remember, that's by design to create the mismatch and destroy a defense.
Artistic Smashmouth Tenet No. 3: Play-Action Passes
"Opponents confront us continually, but actually there is no opponent there. Enter deeply into an attack and neutralize it as you draw that misdirected force into your own sphere."- Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido
Arthur Smith loves to use the play-action passing game to offset the run game. When an opponent is expecting a run and Smith calls a play-action, linebackers tend to create what's called a "suck zone" where the Falcons end up with open lanes in the middle of the field for their receivers to run. The Falcons can then take advantage of these open lanes with mismatches from Drake London, Bijan Robinson or Kyle Pitts or any of the other options on the offense. Nate Tice broke down two plays below and noted that Robinson could add an explosive element to the offense.
Tice also notes how the pass rushers get slowed down by how the Falcons force them into the suck zone. By pass rushers having to play the run and the pass at the same time, they aren't going to put as much pressure on the Falcons second-year quarterback. Desmond Ridder having time to survey a defense while also having the ability to hit guys open over the middle will create big plays for the Falcons offense. With the heavy play-action and run percentages the team will be looking to be in, this is a true staple of the offense, and it can even create more room in the running game.
Ridder also seems to be at home with play-action concepts. The Falcons ran play-action on 43 percent of their passing plays in 2022 and that percentage should be around the same in 2023. By running play-action so much, the Falcons will rely on their strong running game and create open and free passing lanes for the offense to create big plays. In 2022, the Falcons ran the ball or ran play action 71 percent of the time. For any team, that's a really large number, but that's what the Falcons offense essentially is.
Artistic Smashmouth Tenet No. 4: Bully Ball
"Fighting means you could lose. Bullying means you can't. A bully wants to beat somebody; he doesn't want to fight somebody."- Andrew Vachss, famous author
One of the biggest tenets of Artistic Smashmouth is "Bully Ball". Bully Ball is controlling the lines, running over defenders, and having even the receivers and tight ends block the linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks into the dirt. The Falcons already had a great offensive line with a revolving door at left guard and their four returning starters—left tackle Jake Matthews, center Drew Dalman, right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary. The Falcons added Matthew Bergeron in the draft to hopefully bring stability to a left guard spot that had four different starters in 2022. Bergeron was a left tackle for Syracuse and has the pass protecting and run blocking to slot right in and upgrade the position from the rest of the players that were used there in 2022.
The great play from 2022 and addition of Bergeron has pundits like ESPN's Mike Clay to rating the unit in the top 10 of all NFL offensive lines. Bully ball begins up front. Yet, it also includes powerful running backs who are more than willing to run through a defender versus having to run around them. The Falcons added Bijan Robinson in the draft to complement powerful running backs of Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley. Every Falcons back has some speed to them, but their real strength is in the power they have in their 215-plus pound frames. Patterson, Huntley and Allgeier showed their power in 2022 with the Falcons, but Robinson was showing his power at Texas too. By having running backs who run right through defenders, the Falcons have true belief in Bully Ball.
When the Falcons have not just those powerful running backs, but larger wide receivers and tight ends who are committed to blocking and running through defenders, that's another piece of the Bully Ball puzzle. Drake London at 6-foot-5 and 213 pounds, Kyle Pitts at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, Jonnu Smith at 6-foot-3 and 248 pounds and Mack Hollins at 6-foot-4 and 221 pounds are just the primary players at those positions that should see a lot of action. The size, speed and power they all provide at thier positions allows the Falcons to bully defenders off the line on the edges. It also allows the Falcons to throw them the ball over the middle and make defenders try to tackle them in space. As seen in the clip below, guys with that kind of size, speed and power can take a 15-20 yard catch and turn it into a 61-yard catch rather easily, just by bullying down a defensive back.
The great thing about a team using a Bully Ball philosophy is that it wears down teams through the course of the game. It allows players with explosive speed to pop free for big gains the way Kyle Pitts and Bijan Robinson can. It also softens the defense up for speedier players like Scotty Miller who may not have the size but can get open easily against a worn down, beat up defense in the fourth quarter for a deep shot dagger. Bully Ball is a big part of what the Falcons do because it helps control the game, but it also softens up the opponent and makes every game feel like a war against them.
Artistic Smashmouth Tenet No. 5: Positionless Football
"I know every single play in every single position, so it makes the job a lot easier for me, because I know where I should be and what my teammates should do."- Lebron James, NBA legend
In world football (aka soccer), this concept is called Total Football as shown in the third season of the TV show Ted Lasso. In basketball, it's a major tenet of the modern NBA offense, where players don't have truly set positions and continually flow around the ball. It's not as easy to do in the NFL, but one thing the Artistic Smashmouth offense is trying to do is create this concept of positionless football players. The 49ers and Falcons were on the cutting edge of this in 2021 with guys like Deebo Samuel and Cordarrelle Patterson playing hybrid wide receiver/slot receiver/running back roles. However, the roots of this concept started much further back. The true origins start with Bill Walsh and his west coast offenses that utilized creating wide open opportunities in space for all of his players—most notably Roger Craig from his three Super Bowl teams.
And considering almost every coach on this staff comes from the Walsh tree, it's not surprising that they are trying to revive these concepts that Walsh made famous as part of his "West Coast Offense." In 2016, Atlanta Falcons fans got to see a lot of this theory with a rushing and passing attack based around creating mismatches with Tevin Coleman, Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones all around the formations. In 2023, the Falcons will be using a lot more weapons around the field in multiple spots to try and force mismatches. Positionless football is all about creating mismatches with your non-offensive line personnel to get explosive plays and first downs that keep the chains moving. When teams create explosive plays—15-plus yards running or 20-plus yards passing, their chances at scoring touchdowns on those drives go up exponentially. To do that, the Falcons have running backs, tight ends and wide receivers that can play anywhere to help create those mismatches.
As seen in the second tweet above, the Falcons love to have running backs that can play other positions in the offense. Cordarrelle Patterson was used as a wide receiver on that play. That wasn't the only time. On Desmond Ridder's first two throws of his career, he was trying to hit Patterson deep on those passes with Patterson aligned on the left out wide at receiver. With the addition of Bijan Robinson having Patterson in the fold, the Falcons have at least two running backs that can align as outside or slot receivers and be effective in the role. Tyler Allgeier was training there a bit during training camp as well, but his effectiveness may not be as good as the other two. Either way it's cut, the Falcons have multiple running backs who can play a receiver role and show effectiveness in that role and create mismatches versus linebackers or safeties with their size and speed combinations.
The real piece where the positionless concept comes to play is at tight end. Kyle Pitts is someone who profiles better as an outside wide receiver with his build at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds and 4.48 speed in the 40 yard dash. However, he's a good blocker and plays in-line, but the Falcons do use him out-wide quite a bit as well. On top of that, the Falcons also have Jonnu Smith wo is a 6-foot-3, 248 pound tight end, but he has lined up in past seasons as a running back, fullback, slot wide receiver and even outside wide receiver to go with his in-line duties as well. As it sits, that's four total players so far who can align anywhere on the field and give the Falcons some unique looks that will be featured in the offense. Parker Hesse is also someone who can play a tight end or fullback role, but that's much more common to find in the NFL.
While the Falcons don't have any true wide receivers who can align in the backfield as running backs, there is a lot of versatility in the Falcons offense to move the wide receivers around the formations. Drake London, Mack Hollins, Scotty Miller and KhaDarel Hodge look to be the wide receivers guaranteed to get jobs heading into training camp, and all of them have experience working both out wide and in the slot. This give the Falcons the ability to have even more looks. There are some unique players that could end up earning roster spots that can play in the backfield or at tight end, though like J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Penny Hart or Slade Bolden that could make the roster and be more versatile than their other wide receivers.
An underrated part of the Artistic Smashmouth offense is how the quarterback has to run the ball at times. Matt Ryan didn't run the ball very much—or well—in 2021 with just 40 carries for 81 yards during the season. On the flip side, Marcus Mariota in 2022 was a great runner with 85 carries for 438 yards and four touchdowns as a runner. The Falcons likely want their quarterback to be around halfway between those two. Desmond Ridder can run the ball and has fantastic athleticism as The Falcoholic's Kevin Knight noted above. He only had 16 carries for 64 yards as a rookie through four games, but that's more than enough to keep the ball moving forward. Atlanta will use him on a lot of rollouts, and his mobility is important when it comes to creating open passing lanes.
Between a mobile quarterback, pieces at running back and tight end that can align anywhere on the field and wide receivers that can play any spot, the Falcons are going to be big with positionless football. Artistic Smashmouth means the NFL's version of Total Football. It means creating mismatches with players who may be "out of position", but overpower or outrun their opponents to create plays in space. The Falcons will be able to use so many different personnel packages to do this too. Whether it's having two tight ends and two running backs in the huddle and then aligning in a five wide receiver set or having 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back) and aligning like it's a base set, the Falcons do a lot to force teams to think before the motion is starting or the ball is snapped.
Artistic Smashmouth Tenet No. 6: Keep Traditional Passing Simple
"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."- Albert Einstein, famous physicist
Arthur Smith loves to run very simple route concepts in his passing offense. When the Falcons played with Desmond Ridder at the helm in 2023, he did vary them up a bit more. However, two concepts he ran more with Ridder running the show were dagger—interior player running a 9-route through the seam, with a 8-10 yard in route or "dig" underneath—or four verticals—a concept where the primary four passing targets were running vertical routes that stemmed later in the route into a post, corner or 9-route straight up the field. As former professional QB and ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky notes, seam routes are foundational to this offense.
With guys like Drake London, Kyle Pitts and Mack Hollins running through the seams of opposing defenses, the Falcons will be taking advantage of Ridder's strengths. He throws the seam routes almost perfectly and has shown through the years at Cincinnati and even last season as a rookie that he can abuse defenses with it. Another thing that Orlovsky notes in his breakdown is how Ridder uses his eyes to affect the secondary. That will be important with the simpler passing concepts that Smith will utilize to create open window throws that should be easier to complete. Seam-attacking concepts are simpler routes, but with the Falcons grouping, they will be the most productive ones they run.
Other concepts that will be put in place to make Ridder's job easier are things like a Mills concept of a Post outside with a slot running a dig underneath. Another could just be running mirrored routes on both sides of the field to make it a left-right concept. Even just messing with the different levels routes could be a way to keep things simple. By keeping the passing game conceptually simple, it will help ease in Ridder as the franchise quarterback the Falcons need him to be. And it should also help the Falcons build off of the rest of the offense to create some explosive plays.
Artistic Smashmouth Tenet No. 7: Keep the Ball Moving
"Stay focused, go after your dreams and keep moving toward your goals."- LL Cool J, famous rapper and actor
Even though the offense is designed to try and create big plays, the most important part of the offense is to just keep the ball moving forward. It's a helluva lot easier to create a big play when it's a 3rd-and-3 than when it's a 3rd-and-8. By just focusing on taking the most the team can from a defense, the offense is designed to build off of positive situations and continue to be what NFL teams consider "on-script." That means just trying to create something out of nothing sometimes. In the video below posted by Football Guys' Zareh Kantzabedian, Desmond Ridder continually finds the play that's going to yield at least something, even if it's a small gain.
Taking check downs to the running back isn't a bad thing in this offense—especially with the dynamic players the Falcons have at running back. Scrambling to get the ball past the line of scrimmage when there's nothing there to throw to isn't frowned upon, because the ball keeps moving forward. Even though this a tenet of every NFL offense, it's a focus for the Falcons because of their heavy running attack. If a back gets hit behind the line of scrimmage and can turn that into a two-yard gain, that's still a positive play for the team and keeps them on schedule for the next play. Atlanta relies on this to have an effective offense overall.
Artistic Smashmouth Tenet No. 8: Control the Clock and the Ball
"If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough."- Mario Andretti, Racing Legend
One big aspect that comes from a run-heavy approach is controlling both the clock and the ball at the same time. Atlanta was only 17th in time of possession in 2022, and that led to them having a 7-10 record for the season. When Marcus Mariota started, the Falcons went 5-8, but didn't average over 30 minutes per game for his starts with just an average of 29:12. With Desmond Ridder, they averaged 32:43 in time of possession. The records reflected that. In wins, the team averaged 30:38 in time of possession but only 29:36 in losses. In 2023, the goal will be to get closer to the top three which is more than 32 minutes per game holding onto the ball. If they can do that, they'll win a lot more games because in 2022, when they held the ball 32 or more minutes, they went 4-2.
Sure. That's a small sample size, but holding onto the ball and playing keep away does a lot for the team. It helps them establish the identity they need to be a great offense. It helps the defense by keeping them off the field and resting them up. It helps the quarterback settle into the game better by knowing he'll have his opportunities. Most of all it helps the offense set the tone of the game. Artistic Smashmouth is about grinding down opponents to create big plays later on. The biggest way to do that is to control the clock and hold onto the ball.
Because of that reducing turnovers and penalties by the offense is extremely important. In 2022, the Falcons had an extremely low number of penalties only committing 68 the entire season or just four per game. The big issue with the offense during the Mariota section of the schedule was the turnovers. The offense averaged 1.3 turnovers per game including many in crucial points of the game leading to a 5-8 record with Mariota starting. With Ridder, the team was 2-2 and only had 1 turnover per game. By limiting the turnovers, the Falcons were able to find a way to win more games. If they can continue to limit turnovers and hold onto the ball, the offense can function even better.
When the offense is predicated on controlling the ball and the clock and is succeeding, the Falcons will win more games. The real question is when the Falcons are off-schedule and losing the time of possession and committing unforced errors, "How will the offense get them back on track?" Heavy focus on the run and play-action will only help this offense to get back on schedule and get back to controlling the game. It may look like the wrong thing at the time, but by forcing teams to play their game and not wavering, the Falcons should be able to right the ship when they're in rocky waters.
Artistic Smashmouth should lead to wins for the Falcons
"Thus the expert in battle moves the enemy, and is not moved by him."- Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Sun Tzu sums up what this entire offense is about. How well the Falcons move the opponent and play their own game will be what leads to wins for the team. Artistic Smashmouth is about forcing the opponent to play a game in a particular style that is uncomfortable for modern NFL players to play with its run heavy nature. It's about bullying the opponent to open up for the big plays. It's about creating window dressing and misdirection to force the opponent into an uncomfortable position and create open lanes for runs and passes. And most of all, it's about winning games by using the personnel advantages the Falcons have.
All advanced stats are courtesy Pro Football Focus or Football Outsiders. All traditional stats are courtesy of official team websites, NFLGSIS or CFB Stats. All RAS and athletic testing numbers are courtesy of DraftScout.com and Kent Lee Platte's RAS Football website.