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Falcons 'Much Better Team' in 2022,' Says Coach Arthur Smith - But Why?

Atlanta Falcons coach Arthur Smith believes his team is largely improved from his first year at the helm - and revealed several reasons as to why.

The similarities between the Atlanta Falcons' 2021 and 2022 seasons - the first two years of coach Arthur Smith's tenure - are almost startling.

Both years, the Falcons lost the two ... though by 45 less points in 2022.

Both years, the Falcons sat at 2-3 after five games.

From games five through 12, the Falcons' 2022 record matched that from 2021.

Every. Single. Game.

It seems almost impossible, but it's the fact of the matter, nonetheless. However, the route to the record has been completely different.

Last season, the Falcons went 7-2 in one-possession games but had a point differential of -146, sitting at -114 through 12 games. In essence, they won a lot of close games - an unusual amount for NFL standards - but were uncompetitive in several games.

This year, Atlanta's 4-5 in one-possession games and has a total point differential of just -21, showing how close - and competitive - many of the games have been.

The difference in records in one-score contests, per Smith, comes down to the style in which those games have played out; a season ago, some of the contests weren't as straightforward or close throughout as they've been this year, he said.

But record aside, Smith is steadfast in his belief that the 2022 Falcons have made significant steps in the right direction.

"I believe we're a much better team," Smith said. "We're a pretty disciplined team - knock on wood, we don't get a lot of penalties, don't have a lot of mental errors ... I feel like we're executing a lot better. We've made a lot more progress in a lot of key areas that have given us a chance situationally, but (the losses are) the end result."

Smith's statement was surprising, not in the sense of the message but that he actually said it. He's fended off questions regarding comparisons between his teams throughout the season, dubbing them unfair.

But with a larger sample size under his belt, Smith sees legitimate progress, and it's not difficult to see that from the outside, either. The Falcons rank third in the NFL in rushing yards per game, a big step forward after being No. 27 the year before Smith took over and No. 31 in his first season.

Atlanta's resiliency and ability to weather the storm throughout the ebbs and flows of games is noticeably better than a season ago and has played a key part in keeping the contests competitive throughout.

Defensively, the Falcons have 17 sacks through 12 games, which isn't exactly lighting the world on fire but already puts them within one of last year's total, which was last in the league by some 11 snaps. It's still not where the team wants to be, but there's clear progress.

However, the record remains what it is, and Smith is well aware. But nevertheless, he appears genuinely pleased with his team's makeup, and believes the experience from this year will only pay dividends moving forward.

"Now, does (the progress) make you feel any better that you're 5-7? No," Smith asserted. "But we have a chance, and guys, no matter what's happened, grind it out - and it's going to pay off ... it has paid off. These young guys, they know what it's like to be in pressure. Where we are right now, we play in the mud, we'll fight you, do everything we can to throw at you to make sure we have a shot to win."

And ultimately, winning is all that matters in the NFL; it's a results-based league and progress is best reflected in the win/less column.

But in order to win - and do it consistently - there needs to be a stable foundation. Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot inherited a roster where they essentially had to start fresh, and have largely done that, as nearly 80 percent of the players on the team have been brought in since he took over.

The Falcons won to a decent degree in his first year, finishing 7-10, but the point differential was a clear sign of how the team stacked up relative to others.

This year, Atlanta's 5-7 record matches that of a season ago, but considering the low preseason expectations and considerable roster turnover (new starters at quarterback, receiver, left guard, center, both inside linebacker and safety spots, defensive tackle, outside linebacker and cornerback) matched with how close nearly every game has been, it's been a different - and more encouraging - formula.

Smith, who was called "tremendous" by Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera following the team's matchup Sunday, is steadily building his team the way he wants to, and even if it's not reflected in the win/loss column, it certainly is in the way his group plays.

But for the progress to truly show, Smith has to get the Falcons over the hump - starting Sunday at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-7), with Atlanta just half a game out of the lead in the NFC South.

Last season, the Falcons finished 2-3 across their last five games; to get atop the division, they'll likely need to do better than that - making now an ideal time to prove this year's team is, after all, "much better" than last.

You can follow Daniel Flick on Twitter @DFlickDraft

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