Bair: Falcons need to find pass efficiency to get offensive…

NEW ORLEANS – The Falcons rushed for 231 yards against New Orleans, worth 5.9 yards per carry. carry, and still lost.

You don’t see that very often. Teams that run that much and that well typically come away with the win, but that wasn’t the case on Sunday. The Falcons lost another close one, 21-18, to the rival Saints at the Caesers Superdome.

It’s not the first time it’s happened either. The Falcons have rushed for at least 200 yards four times. They are 1-3 in those games, all of which were decided by one score.

Each instance is different, but there is a unifying factor here. The passing game didn’t pull its weight.

The aerial attack has produced positive flashpoints, but has not been consistent enough this season to take this offense to the next level.

Say what you will about a defense under construction that has its flaws and talent shortages.

They are keeping the Falcons in games lately. In fact, the defense has allowed 21 points or less in four of the last six games, never allowing more than 25 in that span.

It sets your team up to win. The Falcons are 1-5 in those contests and won once in a 27-24 win over Chicago.

The running game is consistently effective, with dominant displays sprinkled into that mix. This team can turn a corner if Arthur Smith, his staff and his players can get the passing game going.

It wasn’t good enough under Marcus Mariota, so the Falcons made an appropriate quarterback change. It wasn’t good enough in Desmond Ridder’s NFL debut, with the rookie throwing for just 97 yards.

It’s not just on the quarterback. It’s the whole operation, and the Falcons came close to executing just well enough to win or tie a game. Ridder threw a strike to Drake London on 4th-and-5 with about two minutes left, but the USC product lost a fumble that was never close to game-tying field goal range, ending the comeback.

Look, I understand it’s a team game and sometimes one unit has to help another. Nor am I the one to blame and point fingers. This team is what it is at this point. The Falcons are a competitive, spirited and resilient bunch that is better than last year’s group, regardless of what the records say, with an offense headed in the right direction.

It’s not there yet, and it won’t be until the Falcons can punish teams for filling the box, take relatively effective deep shots and perform well on critical mid-to-longer downs.

That’s when, from a glass-half-full perspective, this offense can be scary, and the Falcons will be tough to beat. Despite unwelcome results, there is faith in Smith’s system and what the Falcons are building on offense.

Chris Lindstrom put it with great conviction after the latest tough loss.

“I think there’s a belief in what we’re doing on offense and there’s a belief that everything is going to come together,” the star right guard said. “Our job up front is to continue to work hard in the run game and communicate well in pass protection to give those [skill] guys time to make big plays. They’re doing a good job, but we’ve got to continue to work to have a better week in and week out.”

The running game becomes, as Lindstrom later put it, “the foundation we want to build on.” With the talent up front, in the backfield and in Smith’s mind, there is real confidence that effective running will be the Falcons’ offensive foundation moving forward.

Pitching better, however, could push the Falcons farther and higher and out of the regularity of losing close games that has defined the second half of the season.

“We have to find ways to win these games,” Lindstrom said. “Everybody in this locker room knows that. It’s not the position we want to be in, but all we can do is come to work. That’s the culture around here. There’s no quitting on this team. There’s no bad attitude. Our mentality is that eventually it breaks down. We have to keep working at it and win these close games.”

Now let’s get to the Knight-ness of it all. That complicates the passing game’s evaluation, with a big variable inserted late. He’s dealing with a ton right now working real NFL games. Therefore, you can’t say that Sunday’s passing effort is worse than what came before. It is a new starting point in the evaluation of the passing game.

What Mariota was doing wasn’t good enough, and his unique talents didn’t offer enough optimism to continue down that path. Too often he made critical, game-changing mistakes that you can fairly and accurately pin on the quarterback.

We continue to break down Ridder’s performance, under a microscope and from long range, to see if he can get the passing game going. Or at least show subtle signs of progress.

“I told Desmond (on Saturday) that whether he threw for 300 yards or 100, it wasn’t going to define his career,” Smith said. “He has a lot to learn. Watching him operate procedurally, he has a lot of command. The next step is to continue to find solutions and make plays. It was another close game and we had our chances. We ultimately didn’t get it done.”

Finding signs of progress using eye tests over the stat sheet will be the focus of this remaining season. Playoffs aren’t even a consideration right now. It’s about looking inward and evaluating the quarterback and all the components of the passing game to see what’s working, what’s not and how it can be improved heading into the third year of Smith’s system.

“We just have to figure out a way,” London said, “to get over the hump.”

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