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Lions vs. Falcons 5Qs preview: Falcons are ‘legitimate NFC playoff contenders’

A preview with The Falcoholic’s Kevin Knight about the Week 3 matchup between the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons.

Green Bay Packers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Last week’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks was a shock to the system and a hard dose of reality for the Detroit Lions, who now stand at 1-1 on the season. This week, the undefeated Atlanta Falcons travel to Ford Field in search of keeping their perfect start intact.

As always, we would never pass up the opportunity to get some intel from the opponent’s perspective. We called on Kevin Knight from to give us a look into who these upstart Falcons are, how their rebuild is finally hitting its stride, and what kind of football we can expect to see from Atlanta in this Week 3 matchup between the Lions and Falcons.

First of all, congratulations on being 2-0–can’t relate!

It’s Year 3 of the Arthur Smith experience, and the NFC South seems as wide open as it’s ever been with an aging Saints defense, the Panthers at the beginning of their rebuild, and the Buccaneers existing in that strange, post-Super Bowl purgatory without a franchise quarterback. How have Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot put the Falcons in position to contend for the division title in 2023 and gotten them off to a perfect start in the process?

It’s been a slow, methodical rebuild, and it’s taken every bit of the previous two years (and this offseason) to make this team into a legitimate playoff contender. Digging this team out of the cap hell left by Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn, who were both kept a year too long and did significant long-term damage to the team with their free agency moves in 2020, was something that Terry Fontenot tackled head-on right from the beginning. After having more than a third of their cap space eaten by dead cap in 2022, only one bad deal from the previous regime remains on the books in 2023 (and will be gone completely in 2024): Deion Jones ($12.1M dead cap).

The Falcons entered 2023 with a ton of cap space and tremendous flexibility in future years, and finally got a chance to spend on some free agents this offseason. All of those pickups have flashed so far, with the two biggest (safety Jessie Bates III and defensive tackle David Onyemata) playing starring roles in Atlanta’s 2-0 start. Fontenot has also been savvy with trades, flipping Day 3 picks for veterans like TE Jonnu Smith and CB Jeff Okudah—who appears set to make his Falcons debut this week.

Meanwhile, on the coaching side of things, Arthur Smith has completely changed the demeanor of this team. What was once a high-flying, finesse-based passing attack has been replaced by a hard-nosed, run-focused approach with a play-action passing game behind it. Atlanta has filled out the offense with an emphasis on skill positions early in the draft, and now possesses a trio of elite options in WR Drake London, TE Kyle Pitts, and rookie RB Bijan Robinson. The offensive line has been completely revamped and is now among the NFL’s best units, particularly in run blocking. After two so-so years with Dean Pees—who, to his credit, managed to turn the least talented, least expensive defense in the NFL in 2022 into merely a below-average unit—the Falcons have moved on to former Saints DC, Ryan Nielsen. Nielsen brings a very different approach to Pees, with an emphasis on man coverage and 4-2-5 packages with a lot of blitzing from the linebackers. Thus far, it’s been a pretty miraculous start, as the once-maligned Falcons defense is in the top-10 in scoring through two weeks.

In short, it’s required a great deal of patience, but the pieces are finally coming together along with some improved coaching to make this team into what appears to be a legitimate NFC playoff contender for the 2023 season. Smith and Fontenot’s patient approach also means this is just the beginning for Atlanta: they’ll have even more cap flexibility and draft capital at their disposal in 2024. I love it when a plan comes together!

Something the Lions can relate to, however, is taking a running back in the first half of last year’s NFL Draft. It’s early, of course, but how has Bijan Robinson elevated this offense through two games so far this season–and how vital is he to the team’s success moving forward?

Bijan has been everything you could have hoped for through two games. He’s among the all-time leaders in NFL history in most yards from scrimmage in his first two games, and that’s just scratching the surface of his potential. It was immediately obvious in training camp that Bijan was special, and he’s continued that into the regular season. He’s a player that breaks all the rules and gives the offense an outlet in both the rushing and receiving game that is capable of turning nothing into something on any given snap. Bijan was absolutely crucial to both of Atlanta’s victories, with an insane catch-and-run touchdown against the Panthers that no other player could have made, and a pair of incredible fourth down conversions that set up the game-winning field goal against Green Bay. Incredibly, it still looks like there could be more there for Bijan, particularly in the receiving game. I’m so excited to see how he develops over the course of the season, and I expect he’ll be the face of the franchise before long.

The Falcons passing offense excites and entices with big-bodied, athletic pass-catchers like Drake London and Kyle Pitts, but it all starts with the guy under center, second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder. How does Smith’s offense make use of those receivers and what are the early returns on Ridder since being handed the keys to start the season? Are you seeing the benefits of Atlanta choosing to be patient with the former third-round pick after a year of him playing behind last year’s starter Marcus Mariota?

Smith’s offense is the source of endless frustration for fantasy managers, as it’s a passing game with highly variable volume from week to week and a number of stars to feed in London, Pitts, and now Bijan. They’ve also got a stable of capable targets behind them in Mack Hollins (who actually leads the team in receiving and had a toe-tapping TD wiped off the board by bad officiating against GB), Jonnu Smith, and deep threat Scotty Miller. That’s just how this is going to go: Smith’s offense is going to feed the hot hand and run the ball as much as possible, because Atlanta is capable of dominating opponents on the ground.

On Desmond Ridder, he’s made some outstanding plays and is clearly at his best in high-pressure situations—Atlanta has absolutely crushed the fourth quarter this season. He’s taken some steps forward from his four games in 2022. However, Ridder is still not reading the field particularly well and has made a number of critical errors thus far. He’s very lucky to have just one interception, as he could have thrown as many as three against the Packers and had a potential pick dropped in Carolina. Still, I think we’ve seen enough from Ridder through two games to think that, with continued gradual improvement, he could eventually turn into something for this team. Whether that’s a high-end backup, solid starter, or franchise QB, we’re a long way from finding out. I think he’ll have until the end of this season to prove himself, but if he doesn’t, Atlanta will likely be major players for a quarterback in 2024 given their aforementioned abundance of resources.

While the offense is filled with all of these playmakers who could have a breakout season, the Falcons defense has had an impressive start to the year: third in the league in net yards allowed per passing attempt (4.0) and third in yards allowed per offensive play (4.2). Tell us about how some of the familiar faces (Grady Jarrett, A.J. Terrell) and some of the newcomers (David Onyemata, Jessie Bates) have come together to rejuvenate this Atlanta defense through the first two games.

As I said in an earlier question, the signings of Jessie Bates III and David Onyemata have been absolute home runs. Bates gives the Falcons an elite playmaker on the back end and allows Ryan Nielsen the flexibility to get very aggressive with his blitz packages, while Onyemata gives Grady Jarrett the running mate on the inside that he’s lacked throughout his entire career. The interior of this defensive line is stout and deep. On the edge, it’s still very much a work in progress. The good news is that the team has raised the floor of the unit a lot with Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree, but they still lack a guy who can win consistently on the outside. A.J. Terrell has been elite through two games and the hope is that former Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah can be a better option than Tre Flowers across from him. Okudah was showing out in camp, so expectations are pretty high. Could we have a REVENGE GAME on our hands?

Ultimately, I think Nielsen’s coaching has elevated this unit along with a big infusion of talent. They’re probably not as good as the stats show through two games, but even if this defense is just average, that would make them the best Falcons defense since 2017.

What’s one nugget of Falcons’ intel that a gambling Lions fan would find useful for their bet slip this weekend?

Keep track of the Bijan Robinson receiving over/under. Last week, it was a comically low 17.5 receiving yards. If it’s less than 30, run to make that bet. He’s getting 4+ targets every week and can turn any of one of them into a 20+ yard play. Kyle Pitts also tends to have low over/under receiving numbers because of his inconsistent usage, but given his role as a deep threat, he can get 25+ yards on a single catch. We’ll have to monitor the injury report for Detroit, but given the injuries in the secondary this week, this could be a good week to target the overs for Atlanta’s passing game.

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