Atlanta Falcons focused on building new culture amid low expectations – USA TODAY

ATLANTA — Arthur Smith’s grimace told the entire story.  
During the second preseason game against the New York Jets, the Atlanta Falcons head coach knew his offensive unit had let a golden opportunity slip through the cracks.
The Falcons were driving with their two-minute offense. Rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder had the group in position to score a touchdown just before halftime. Atlanta marched into the red zone before three penalties quelled the drive. The Falcons settled for a 30-yard field goal.
Smith, in his second year as head coach, was visibly upset as he yelled at players from the sideline.
“The ones that really drive me nuts are any of the procedure stuff,” Smith said about the penalties after the game. “We have to play with good fundamentals and technique.” 
It was a teachable moment for a team in the process of a major rebuild. Though the Falcons aren’t projected to make the playoffs in 2022, Smith is constructing a team that won’t just give away wins.
Opponents will have to earn them. 
The Falcons are setting a new mentality. Every repetition counts and mistakes are quickly corrected. It’s the reason Smith reacted strongly during the preseason game against the Jets and why his aggressive play-calling led to a fourth-quarter comeback against the Detroit Lions.
“We’re changing the culture around this dadgum place,” Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees said earlier in training camp. “It’s not going to be in the bottom half of the league like it’s been 15 of the last 20 years. Sick of that crap. We’ve got to take charge, and it’s not going to be anyone else to do it but us.
“I’m tired of everybody telling us how bad we are, because after a while you start believing it.” 
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The Falcons made some of those adjustments with one game left in preseason. In a joint practice against the Jacksonville Jaguars, several players were flying around the ball. The defense made some splash plays which carried into the final preseason game between the two teams.
The Falcons held the Jaguars to 251 total yards. Jacksonville didn’t score after halftime, and the Falcons won 28-12.
Gone are franchise mainstays like quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones. In their places are NFL journeyman Marcus Mariota and standout rookie Drake London.
“If we spotted you QB Marcus Mariota and TE Kyle Pitts, could you name three more starters for Atlanta?” USA TODAY Sports NFL columnist Nate Davis wrote in his preseason power rankings. 
Davis also predicted the Falcons to win just two games this season.
“It’s a lot of noise and people really don’t count on us from the outside of the building,” Falcons edge-rusher Lorenzo Carter told USA TODAY Sports. “Inside of the building, we don’t care as we come to work every day with our hard hats on ready to get better.”
While the roster may lack star power, the Falcons have added a strong mix of veterans this offseason. General manager Terry Fontenot signed Mariota, Rashaan Evans, Casey Hayward and Damien Williams. Receiver Bryan Edwards also joined the Falcons from the Las Vegas Raiders.
“We will line it up with anybody and give them hell,” Carter said.
Mariota said the practices were important to set the tone for the upcoming season. 
“I thought that throughout camp, every single day was highly competitive,” he said. “When you breed that within your team and bring that type of culture, you get the best out of guys.”
The former Heisman winner has a tough task in replacing an experienced starter.
For 14 seasons, Ryan guided the Falcons to multiple postseasons and to a Super Bowl appearance after the 2016 season.
This is a second chance for Mariota to become a starter. After beginning his career with the Tennessee Titans, the former No. 2 overall pick has bounced around the league. He’s familiar with Smith’s offense. Smith was Mariota’s offensive coordinator with the Titans in 2019 when the quarterback threw for 1,203 yards and seven touchdowns in six starts. 
Now, he steps into a new leadership role with the Falcons. 
“I’ve had so many things happen to me in my career,” Mariota said. “I’ve had so many different experiences that I feel I can build relationships with these guys and hopefully help them in their journey.”
The Falcons have over $64 million in dead cap money, according to Over The Cap. Next offseason, the money will roll off the financial books and yield the Falcons significant cap space in free agency.
The flexibility helps the front office continue to tailor its roster. It also makes each game this season important for player development. Key open positions include quarterback, offensive line and defensive line. Each is necessary for the Falcons to make an incremental leap as a team.
How Mariota performs will be a deciding factor because the Falcons have Ridder awaiting his opportunity. 
But Atlanta solidified some of its offensive interior, including the center spot after a position battle between Matt Hennessy and Drew Dalman. The Falcons named Dalman the starter ahead of the season opener. 
Defensively, the Falcons need to improve stopping the run and generating more sacks. Last season, the team ranked 29th in points allowed. They also recorded just 18 total sacks. By comparison, Pittsburgh Steelers edge-rusher T.J. Watt had 22.5 sacks.
“We’ve been in the top 10 one time out of the last 20 years,” Pees said. “That (expletive) over. Sorry, I’m getting fired up today, but I’m tired of this crap. We’re going to change the culture of the defense around this frickin’ place.” 
The Falcons have recorded three top-10 defensive units since 2002. The last time it happened was a fifth-place finish in 2012, according to Pro Football Reference. 
“People are going to start talking about the Atlanta defense like they did Baltimore and New England,” Pees said. “It’s going to be the same (expletive) around here.”
Wins and losses still matter in the NFL, but the ability to develop players is also important. The Falcons’ coaching staff is on a mission to turn things around. 
“We are taking it on the chin this year,” Fontenot said in the offseason. “It is our job to find value in free agency, draft well and put a good football team on the field this year, even with that dead cap. It’s an obstacle, but we look at it as an opportunity.”
The regular season starts Sept. 11 against the rival New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m. ET.
“We got to go out there and play these games,” said Hayward, who is a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback in his first season with Atlanta.
“On September 11, we go out there to play and hopefully come out with a win against a really good team.”  

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