In looking for a storyline Friday night, you don't need to gaze beyond Atlanta Falcons' Arthur Smith.
The first-year head coach will face his former club in the Tennessee Titans at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. For the previous two seasons, Smith was the chief engineer on Tennessee's offensive identity in successive playoff runs.
Smith is also credited for the revival Pro Bowl quarterback Ryan Tannehill, plus the emergence of Derrick Henry in the run game. In both seasons under Smith as offensive coordinator, Henry led the NFL in rushing.
Tennessee is expecting to contend in the AFC. Along with Kansas City, Buffalo and, perhaps Cleveland, the Titans have one of the more complete rosters in the conference. Adding former Falcons All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones is icing on the cake.
As for Smith? He knows what to expect when the ball is kicked at 7 p.m.
“I know what they’re about, and they got a pretty good idea of what we’re about over here,” Smith told reporters Thursday. “So there’s a lot of mutual respect, and there won’t be a lot of trickery going on Friday night.”
Smith worked his way up the latter under the direction of four different head coaches. He was hired away from Ole Miss in 2011 to become a defensive quality control coach.
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A year later, he moved over to the offensive side. Ever since, Smith slowly moved into a more prominent role on the staff. He started working with the offensive line before transitioning to the tight ends coach and eventually becoming OC in 2019.
A native of Memphis, Smith knows knows Tennessee as well as anyone in the NFL. And after a decade in the Music City, he views Friday as a "beautiful moment" for multiple reasons.
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On one hand, he'll see old faces and friends. On the other, Atlanta will get a clear look on where they must improve prior to their Week 1 matchup against Philadelphia.
“That’s the beautiful thing about football, you get to make decisions and how you want to attack this, how we want to handle (an exhibition game),” Smith said. “That’s fun. You got 32 different flavors, but it’s a healthy respect. We know what both teams are about. And that’s why I’m glad that we’re playing them. … It’s a good evaluation for us because I know what we’re up against.”
According to Scott Bair of AtlantaFalcons.com, the team is not expected to player the following regulars: QB Matt Ryan, CB AJ Terrell, TE Hayden Hurst, WR Calvin Ridley, OT Jake Matthews, S Erik Harris, S Duron Harmon, WR Russell Gage, DL Grady Jarrett and LB Foye Oluokun.
Rookie tight end Kyle Pitts is expected to play some Friday, though how much has not been reported.