ATLANTA (AP)Arthur Smith wanted to relish his first winning record in his three seasons as the Atlanta Falcons’ coach.
In his news conference following Sunday’s 24-10 season-opening win over the Carolina Panthers, Smith wasn’t interested in a question which began by noting that his quarterback, Desmond Ridder, had more catches than his No. 1 wide receiver, Drake London.
On the game’s first snap, Ridder caught the deflection of his pass for a loss of 6 yards. Ridder threw for only 115 yards and London had no catches with only one target.
It was not a great showing for Atlanta’s passing game, but the running game led by rookie Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier and the bolstered defense led by Jessie Bates were enough to beat the Panthers.
Smith brushed off the question about Ridder and London.
“Let the fantasy guys worry about that,” Smith said. “We’ve got to clean some things up. We can all be better in our spacing and the targets is the most misunderstood thing in the National Football League. … We don’t care about the stats, we care about winning.”
The Falcons finished 7-10 in each of Smith’s first two seasons and haven’t made the playoffs since 2017.
Based on that context, the impressive debut by the first-year coordinator Ryan Nielsen’s defense and the production of Robinson and Allgeier were ample reasons for encouragement.
Meanwhile, fantasy players are advised to look elsewhere at quarterback and wide receiver until further notice.
Even though the Panthers outrushed the Falcons 154-130, Atlanta’s ground game did not disappoint. Allgeier, who ran for 1,035 yards as a rookie in 2022, scored two touchdowns on the ground.
Robinson showed why he was the No. 8 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft. He displayed a rare combination of speed, power and elusiveness as he cut through the Carolina defense on his 11-yard touchdown reception.
Robinson displayed his versatility by lining up wide as well as behind Ridder. Cordarrelle Patterson, who was inactive because of a soft tissue injury, should add more all-purpose skills as a runner and receiver when healthy.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Ridder’s play was a continuation of his four-game audition as a starter to close last season, when he completed 63.5% of his passes for 708 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Against Carolina, Ridder completed 15 of 18 passes without an interception but again showed little interest or ability to stretch the defense with passes downfield.
Robinson’s six targets led the team. Mack Hollins led the wide receivers with four targets and caught three passes for 31 yards.
Clearly, the Falcons’ commitment to a run-first offense hasn’t changed. A win over Carolina isn’t enough proof the philosophy can put the team back in the playoffs without more help from the passing game.
Allgeier led the team with 15 carries for 75 yards and scored the team’s two rushing scores. While Robinson was on the field for the first snap, Allgeier’s power runs made him more of a co-starter than a backup in this game, and it seems likely the Falcons will find more formations with both backs on the field.
When the Falcons made London the No. 8 overall pick in the 2022 draft, there were questions about his ability to create separation from defensive backs.
London (6-4, 213 pounds) averaged 12 yards on his 76 catches for 866 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, finishing strong with five or more catches in each of his last five games.
London’s slow start against Carolina is discouraging, but isn’t necessarily a blueprint for the season.
Smith said Monday that Patterson and cornerback Jeff Okudah (foot) were trending toward a possible return this week after missing the opener.
34. Other than Robinson’s big play, there was one other notable highlight in the passing game. Tight end Kyle Pitts’ 34-yard catch was Atlanta’s biggest gain of the day. Though Pitts had only one other catch, it was an important glimpse of his form as a rookie in 2021 before his 2022 season was cut short by a knee injury.
Ultimately, the Falcons must find a way to create more plays through the air or defenses will stack the box to stop Robinson and Allgeier. Pitts may be the best path to passing production.
The Falcons will remain home when Green Bay, coming off a 38-20 win at Chicago, visits Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday.
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