FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - It’s starting to feel like Arthur Smith is coaching for his job with the Atlanta Falcons.
After three straight losses, including a final-play setback to the woeful Arizona Cardinals, the Falcons (4-6) head into their bye week with questions all over the field — and on the sideline.
Who is the No. 1 quarterback? What happened to the defense that was supposed to be dramatically improved after an offseason spending spree? Is Smith’s job on the line if things don’t turn around?
"You embrace it — the good, the bad, the pressure," Smith said Monday. "The good news is we’re not dead."
Indeed, the Falcons are hardly out of contention in the mediocre NFC South, trailing the first-place Saints by only a game.
But they have failed so far to take advantage of a weak schedule. Atlanta’s first 10 opponents have a combined record of 41-52.
Smith said he’ll look into almost everything during the bye week, but there is one area that will not change: his coaching staff.
"We’re not making staff adjustments," he said. "I know this is what happens when you lose a couple in a row. There’s frustration. But we’ve got the right people in here."
The fan base is certainly frustrated. Social media lit up with calls for Smith to be fired after the latest loss.
He insisted that’s not a concern.
"It’s pro football," Smith said. "If you don’t like that, don’t sign up for it."
Led by rookie Bijan Robinson, the running game stacked up 184 yards against Arizona, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. That was impressive, given the Falcons were basically a one-dimensional team on offense.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Falcons have lost three straight games to teams with a quarterback making his NFL debut ( Tennessee’s Will Levis ), a quarterback who had been with the team for only a few days ( Minnesota’s Joshua Dobbs ) and a quarterback playing for the first time in nearly a year (Arizona’s Kyler Murray). This is not what Atlanta expected after doling out upward of $140 million to defensive players in free agency.
"We’ve got to find a way to contain better, change things up, get some pressure," Smith said. "We’ll look at everything."
The passing game was abysmal against the Cardinals, netting just 70 yards after three sacks were factored in. That was the Falcons’ worst showing in a game since 2007, which doesn’t reflect well on the head coach. After all, Smith is the one calling the plays and he was hired by the Falcons largely for his offensive acumen.
Desmond Ridder might have earned his starting job back by leading the Falcons on a 74-yard touchdown drive after taking over for injured Taylor Heinicke. Ridder, who started the first eight games before he was replaced by Heinicke, completed 4 of 6 passes for 39 yards and scored on a 9-yard run with 2 1/2 minutes remaining.
Smith conceded that he can’t keep going back and forth at the most crucial position on the field, but he wasn’t ready to announce a decision Monday. Realistically, the Falcons would seem to have little choice except to give Ridder his job back and hope for the best the rest of the season.
"A little premature," Smith said. "Both of those guys have done some good things and other things that we have to assess and see where we’re at."
S Richie Grant was burned for another big play, giving up Murray’s 33-yard pass to tight end Trey McBride in the final minute to set up Arizona’s game-winning field goal. McBride took a jab at Grant’s pass-coverage abilities, saying he told Murray, "if this guy gets me man-to-man, I’ve been killing him all game, just give me a chance." McBride finished with 131 yards on eight receptions, making him the first Cardinals tight end since 1989 to surpass 100 yards receiving.
Offensively, the Falcons failed to get much out of their top draft picks from 2021 and ’22. TE Kyle Pitts was held to three catches for 30 yards, while WR Drake London totaled just 36 yards on three receptions. Again, a very poor reflection on the head coach.
Heinicke sustained a hamstring injury on an 8-yard run in the fourth quarter. While the off week provides extra time to recover, he seems likely to return to the bench even if he’s healthy. The Falcons will hope to get back WR Mack Hollins and CB Dee Alford, both sidelined against the Cardinals because of ankle injuries.
18-26 — Smith’s record 10 games into Year 3 of his Falcons tenure. That’s the worst mark for an Atlanta coach after 44 games since June Jones had the same record in 1996. Jones was fired at the end of that season.
The bye week comes at a fortuitous time for the Falcons, who must use the down time to thoroughly reassess every facet of the team. The schedule remains favorable the rest of the way, with six opponents that sport a combined record of 22-34.
Atlanta hosts the Saints (5-5) on Nov. 26, the first of two games remaining against its NFC South rival.