NFL

Atlanta Falcons 2023 NFL Season Preview and Picks

By Scott Kacsmar

The Atlanta Falcons are hoping to end a streak of five losing seasons, the team’s longest such streak since an 8-year run in 1983-90. Head coach Arthur Smith has produced back-to-back 7-10 records, but the Falcons were able to improve their scoring differential by over 120 points last season.

This could be the sign of a team on the rise, and an interesting draft decision and easy schedule could mark 2023 as a return to winning for the Falcons. Sportsbooks have Atlanta with the second-best odds to win the NFC South after New Orleans, and the over/under win total is 8.5 wins.

We look back at 2022’s run-heavy approach, the key offseason changes, the benefit of a light schedule to an unproven quarterback, and the best Falcons bets for 2023.

2022 Season Recap: Different Looks, Same Results     

Atlanta’s first season in the post-Matt Ryan era was always going to look different with Marcus Mariota taking over at quarterback. The Falcons finished with the same 7-10 record as in 2021, but there were fewer blowout losses, and they still managed the same number of comebacks (3) and game-winning drives (4) as Ryan had in 2021.

But the 2022 Falcons tried to shrink games with a league-high 559 rushing attempts. Even with a 17-game season, the Falcons did not pass for 3,000 yards last year, which would have been heresy for the Ryan era.

With the offense having adequate ranks on third down (10th in conversion rate) and in the red zone (14th at scoring touchdowns), this kind of worked for the first half of the season when the Falcons were 4-4 after a thrilling 37-34 overtime win over Carolina, the team’s most exciting game of the season.

Atlanta’s offense only had 165 possessions, the second-fewest in the league. This is why the offense was more efficient than some of the raw numbers suggest. The run-heavy Falcons finished 24th in yards gained but they were 14th in yards per drive. Likewise, Atlanta’s defense only faced 168 drives, the third-fewest in the league, which is why their metrics were not great on a per-drive basis (29th in yards and 28th in points allowed per drive).

The Falcons blew a 26-10 lead in the fourth quarter in Week 1 against the Saints, a game they win if Mariota does not botch a snap on a crucial short-yardage play late in the game. But fortunately, that was one of only two blown leads in the fourth quarter by the Falcons in 2022.

The other happened against the Chargers, a 20-17 loss where Younghoe Koo missed a 50-yard field goal earlier in the quarter that would have extended the Falcons’ lead to 20-14.

That loss dropped the Falcons to 4-5, and suddenly a team that was scoring 25 points per game (tied for No. 6) through 8 games was struggling to put up 20 points as no one respected the low-volume passing game. Tight end Kyle Pitts was also injured after 10 games, though the Falcons barely used him as a receiver last year after he went over 1,000 yards as a rookie.

But it was the rainy 25-15 loss in Carolina in Week 10 on a Thursday night that was the beginning of the end for Mariota. He struggled and became a meme when he threw an interception while laying on the ground, a terrible decision.

After back-to-back losses to the Commanders and Steelers where the defense held the opponent under 20 points, the Falcons made the quarterback switch to rookie Desmond Ridder at the bye week.

Ridder had to open with two tough road challenges against solid defenses in the Saints and Ravens. The Falcons lost two more low-scoring games there before beating lowly Arizona and taking it to a Tampa Bay team that was eying a playoff game the following week and did not need to win in Week 18. At least Tom Brady did not retire undefeated against the Falcons (10-1).

The Falcons finished 7-10 but at least first-round wideout Drake London looked solid and fifth-round running back Tyler Allgeier rushed for 1,035 yards.

Offseason Review

The most significant change in Atlanta is starting the season with Desmond Ridder at quarterback after he started the last four games of his rookie year. Ridder is one of the biggest wild cards of this 2023 NFL season, but we will talk about him in the next section.

Something closer to a sure thing in Atlanta should be rookie running back Bijan Robinson out of Texas. He is the favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, though he will have to prove he can get the majority of carries over Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson, who both return from last year’s run-heaviest offense.

It was a bold pick with the No. 8 selection in the draft. Would the Falcons have been better off taking Jalen Carter to give them a cornerstone at defensive tackle for years to come? Maybe so, but the off-field concerns were likely a factor. The other choices available at No. 8 were not great as it was really between Carter and a few offensive tackles when the Falcons still have Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary as starters at the tackle positions. Any wide receiver would have been a reach at No. 8 after taking London last year, and obviously, they were not going to draft tight end Dalton Kincaid with Pitts there. Ridder also has just as much upside as Will Levis, the fourth quarterback in the draft who slid into the second round.

It is hard to love drafting a running back at No. 8, but at least the Falcons are an offense that we know will want to use him the best they can. They also grabbed a new left guard (Matthew Bergeron) with their second-round pick.

On defense, long-time assistant Dean Pees retired. The new defensive coordinator is Ryan Nielsen, who was with the Saints and got a taste of coordinator duties in this division last season.

Nielsen has his work cut out for him as the Falcons are largely a collection of aging veterans and cast-offs from other teams:

  • DE Calais Campbell (Ravens): He will be 37 and has 99.0 career sacks and one hell of a voice.
  • DT David Onyemata (Saints): Started 68 games in 7 seasons for the Saints.
  • OLB Bud Dupree (Titans): Edge rusher still trying to regain the form he had in Pittsburgh in 2020 before tearing his ACL.
  • MLB Kaden Elliss (Saints): Only started 12 games in 4 seasons for the Saints, but 11 starts last year and he could be the leader in the linebacker corps this year.
  • S Jessie Bates III (Bengals): Made 79 starts in Cincinnati and usually gets a lot of tackles, but he had a career-low 71 tackles last year to go with a career-high 4 interceptions.
  • CB Jeff Okudah (Lions): The No. 3 pick in the 2020 draft never worked out for the Lions, though at least he only allowed 1 touchdown pass in coverage last season.

Grady Jarrett (2015) and A.J. Terrell (2020) are the most tenured defenders left in Atlanta, so this will be a new look for the defense in 2023. But given the schedule the team has, this defense could see a big improvement in their statistics.

This Year’s Area of Interest: How Will a Light Schedule Help the Unproven Quarterback?

As we first looked at in the Saints preview, the schedule is very kind to these NFC South teams this year. They get to play the AFC South and NFC North, two divisions that seemingly lack any elite teams. They also have six division games, and the NFC South was won by an 8-9 team last year that lost Tom Brady, an Atlanta nemesis, to retirement.

Based on preseason Super Bowl odds, the Falcons have the easiest schedule in the league this year. They just beat out the Saints thanks to having a game with the Cardinals (+20000), who the sportsbooks have pegged as the worst team in the NFL this year, while the Saints play the Rams (+8000).

The Falcons will play just one team that ranks in the top 8 in Super Bowl odds, and that is the Jets in Week 13 with the expectations that Aaron Rodgers will do great things.

But the Falcons do not have to play the Chiefs, Bills, Bengals, Eagles, 49ers, Cowboys, or Ravens. That is fantastic news for Ridder, who may not be ready in 2023 (or ever) to outduel the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts, and any other elite quarterback.

Instead, the Falcons could have 4 games against rookie quarterbacks as they play the Colts (Anthony Richardson), Texans (C.J. Stroud), and Panthers twice (Bryce Young). They also could draw starters with less experience than Ridder in Green Bay (Jordan Love) and Washington (Sam Howell). Will Kyler Murray be back for Arizona by Week 10? We’ll see, but the Falcons could also get a pair of games against Baker Mayfield in Tampa Bay.

The Falcons were 6-7 in close games last year. They only allowed more than 27 points in 3 games, and only the 35-17 loss to Cincinnati was out of reach from winning. If this defense can keep the score down and the Falcons can control a lot of games on the ground with Ridder avoiding mistakes, this team has a great shot to finish with a winning record.

It is not like Ridder lacks talent around him. The Falcons have drafted Pitts, London, and now Robinson in the last three drafts to give him a leading tight end, wideout, and running back. The backfield has great depth. The receivers are not deep with Mack Hollins and KhaDarel Hodge backing up London, but they simply need to get London and Pitts more involved in this passing game. We did not see Ridder play with Pitts last year due to the tight end’s injury.

Ridder is the wild card. He threw 1,304 passes in college (Cincinnati) and averaged 7.9 yards per attempt with 87 touchdowns to 28 interceptions. He was not a one-year wonder. But we have little data to go on in the NFL for him. Frankly, he was kind of boring last year, not throwing a single touchdown or interception in each of his first three starts. He had tunnel vision for London, and he did at least throw his first pair of touchdowns in the Week 18 win over Tampa Bay.

It was only 115 attempts, but no picks are a nice sign that he might be able to keep turnovers low. The 6.16 yards per attempt is nothing to write home about, but he can definitely improve it this year.

But betting on the Falcons this year is really betting on Ridder. Do you believe it or not?

Best Bets for the 2023 Falcons

The Matt Ryan era is in the rearview mirror. The Falcons are no longer a team who has to throw for 350 yards and score 35 points to win a game, nor are they the team who will do those things and blow a huge lead.

The Falcons are going to do their share of running to control games and keep the score down, and Robinson may very well win that Offensive Rookie of the Year award. The defense has a chance for significant improvement in the rankings even if it is not a unit you would trust against any solid quarterback. But they will face many unproven passers this year.

The NFC has a lot of uncertainty at quarterback. Even a top team like the 49ers, who Atlanta beat decisively last year with Mariota completing 13-of-14 passes, has to answer the question if Brock Purdy is the real deal or a flash in the pan who got injured in the title game.

But unless you have a good gut instinct that Ridder will be terrible, is he really that much of a gamble compared to backing teams with Jordan Love, Sam Howell, Justin Fields (passing matters), Daniel Jones, Baker Mayfield, Bryce Young, and Geno Smith?

Even if we concede the division title to the Saints for having a better defense and an experienced quarterback in Derek Carr, those are the teams the Falcons should be competing with for a wild-card spot.

A 9-8 record with this schedule is absolutely feasible for the Falcons, which is why the over is our best bet. But is that enough for the playoffs? It could be with this schedule, so if you believe in Ridder, now is the time to pick the Falcons to return to the postseason.

NFL Pick: Atlanta Falcons over 8.5 wins (-122 at FanDuel)

NFL Pick: Atlanta Falcons to make playoffs (+110 at BetMGM)

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