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Ten things: A football nerd’s guide to the 2020 Atlanta Falcons


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https://theathletic.com/1953310/2020/07/28/ten-things-a-football-nerds-guide-to-the-2020-atlanta-falcons/?source=dailyemail

Going into the bye last season, it seemed like only a matter of time before the Atlanta Falcons announced major organizational changes. At 1-7, they were the biggest underachievers in the league.

But Dan Quinn shuffled around some members of his coaching staff — most notably moving Raheem Morris from wide receivers coach to secondary coach — and the Falcons went 6-2 in the second half of the season. Owner Arthur Blank announced before Week 17 that Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff would return in 2020. Now after back-to-back 7-9 seasons, the pressure is on for a turnaround.

During the offseason, Atlanta signed edge rusher Dante Fowler and running back Todd Gurley. The Falcons also traded for Hayden Hurst. And Morris officially has been elevated to defensive coordinator.

So what will it take for Atlanta to get back to the postseason?

Below is a preview of the Falcons’ upcoming season that includes analysis of 2019, their offseason moves and their offensive and defensive schemes. Expected points added (EPA) and coverage data is courtesy of Sports Info Solutions. You can find a primer on EPA here or just view it as a success metric that measures a play’s impact on the score of the game. All other numbers are from Sportradar, unless otherwise noted.


1. The Falcons finished 15th in offensive efficiency last season — their second-lowest ranking in Matt Ryan’s 12 seasons as the starting quarterback. And that was with the benefit of good injury luck. The Falcons ranked fifth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric.

While Quinn’s big change came on defense, it’s fair to wonder whether he should have taken a closer look at Dirk Koetter’s performance as offensive coordinator. Koetter is in his second stint with Atlanta. During the first one, the Falcons finished 12th, 14th and 10th in offensive efficiency. That’s four years with Koetter calling plays for a Ryan-led offense and mostly mediocre results.

The Falcons used 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs) on 59 percent of their offensive snaps last season. They were in 12 personnel (one RB, two TEs, two WRs) 15 percent of the time, 21 personnel (two RBs, one TE, two WRs) 12 percent and 22 personnel (two RBs, two TEs, one WR) 4 percent.

The biggest competition will come at left guard where it’ll be either veteran James Carpenter or third-round pick Matt Hennessy. The Falcons will get Chris Lindstrom back at right guard after he was limited to five games as a rookie because of a foot injury. Atlanta sent a second-round pick to the Ravens for Hurst. The Falcons let Devonta Freeman walk in free agency and signed Gurley.

When Atlanta uses 21 and 22 personnel, fullback Keith Smith will get on the field. The Falcons also took a flier on wide receiver Laquon Treadwell.

One way to gauge whether a team is pass heavy or run heavy is to look at what it does on early downs when games are still competitive. The Falcons ranked 15th in pass frequency.

atl_passfreq-1024x576.jpg

In terms of success, the Falcons ranked 18th in both EPA per dropback and EPA per rush on early downs. But since passing is more efficient than rushing (and offers more upside with Ryan at quarterback), the Falcons likely would benefit from throwing the ball more on early downs.

2. The Falcons were not a good rushing team last season, ranking 22nd in efficiency.

Freeman led the team with 656 rushing yards but was among the least efficient backs in the league. Among the 50 backs who had at least 75 carries, Freeman ranked 48th in EPA per rush. He produced a positive result on just 31 percent of his attempts, which ranked last.

Falcons rushing efficiency
CATEGORY EPA/RUSH RANK
Shotgun
0.04
15th out of 30
Under center
-0.12
20th
11 personnel
-0.06
23rd
12 personnel
0.01
7th out of 29
2-RB sets
-0.17
N/A

The one area where the Falcons had some success was running out of 12 personnel. Their projected tight ends for 2020 are Hurst, Jaeden Graham and Khari Lee.

Using a fullback in 21 and 22 personnel produced terrible results for Atlanta.

Football Outsiders uses a metric called adjusted line yards to measure run blocking. The Falcons ranked 24th. And their backs didn’t maximize the opportunities they had to break big runs. Atlanta ranked 25th in second-level yards and 27th in open-field yards.

As for Gurley, he carried 223 times for 857 yards last season, averaging 3.8 YPC. He ranked 39th out of 50 backs in EPA per rush. There were a couple of encouraging metrics. One was that he produced a positive result on 43.9 percent of his carries, which ranked 15th. The other was that he broke a tackle on 17 percent of his attempts, which ranked 20th.

The Falcons are counting on their young offensive linemen to improve and for Gurley to offer upside. But overall, this looks like a mediocre run game.

3. Here’s how Ryan’s overall 2019 performance stacked up.

 
 
team-logo-32-300x300.png
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ATL - QB
Matt
 
Ryan
2019
QBR
57.6
14th
ANY/A
6.08
19th
DVOA
7.0%
14th
EPA/PLAY
0.1
18th
EPA/play accounts only for plays where each team had a win probability of at least 20%.

He was by all accounts a mediocre starter.

Next Gen Stats tracks a metric called completion percentage above expectation. It looks at the probability of a completion on every throw, based on factors like how far the throw is, how open the receiver is and how much pressure the quarterback is under. It then comes up with an expected completion percentage and compares that number to the quarterback’s actual completion percentage. Ryan ranked 11th out of 39 quarterbacks.

He produced a negative result (sack, fumble or interception) on 9.9 percent of his plays, which ranked 23rd among starters.

Football Outsiders uses adjusted interception rate to measure how often quarterbacks throw balls that should be picked off. They remove interceptions that can be blamed on wide receiver drops and Hail Mary attempts. But they add interceptions that are dropped by defenders. Ryan’s 2.9 percent adjusted interception rate ranked 18th among starters. He also fumbled nine times.

4. Here’s how Ryan performed in a number of different categories:

Breaking down Matt Ryan
CATEGORY EPA/DROPBACK RANK
Vs. man
0.02
14th
Vs. zone
0.11
14th
11 personnel
0.07
10th
12 personnel
0.04
15th out of 22
In pocket
0.1
10th
Out of pocket
-0.37
22nd out of 23
Play-action
0.03
26th

He was better against zone than man, but the league-wide ranks were identical. The coverage that gave Ryan the most trouble was Cover-3 (a three-deep zone with four underneath defenders). Ryan ranked 21st among starters in EPA per dropback when facing Cover-3.

The Falcons’ passing numbers were similar in both 11 and 12 personnel. Ryan got into all kinds of trouble when he left the pocket, performing as one of the worst quarterbacks in the league in those situations. Atlanta ranked 25th in play-action frequency, and those plays didn’t give them much.

Ryan performed well when throwing downfield, ranking eighth in EPA per dropback on passes that traveled at least 20 yards. The problem? The Falcons didn’t throw downfield a lot. Just 3.8 percent of Ryan’s dropbacks resulted in downfield completions, and that ranked 21st.

Atlanta’s lack of explosive plays reflects poorly on Koetter. Ryan produced an explosive play (20 yards or more) on just 7.9 percent of his dropbacks, which ranked 30th. How does that happen on a team that has Julio Jones?

5. Speaking of Jones, here’s a look at how the Falcons’ pass-catchers performed last season:

Falcons pass-catchers in 2019
PLAYER YARDS YDS/ROUTE RANK
1,394
2.52
5th out of 111
866
1.75
42nd out of 111
787
1.73
15th out of 67
446
1.24
82nd out of 111
410
1.34
26th out of 58
313
1.18
87th out of 111

Jones continues to be among the best — if not the best — wide receivers in the NFL. Calvin Ridley was a fine No. 2 and could see increased opportunities in 2020. Russell Gage caught 49 balls but averaged just 9.1 yards per reception and ranked 82nd in yards per route run.

Hurst is the big new addition. He averaged 1.8 yards per route run last year, which was 12th among tight ends and slightly better than Austin Hooper (1.73). But Hurst had just 349 receiving yards. The best-case scenario would be him matching Hooper’s production from 2019.

Up front, the Falcons ranked 29th in ESPN’s pass-block win rate metric, which measures how often protection holds up for at least 2.5 seconds. They’re counting on right tackle Kaleb McGary to take a step forward in his second season. Getting Lindstrom back healthy should help. But center Alex Mack turns 35 in November.

With Jones and Ridley, Ryan has talented players to target, but it’s tough to project a big leap for the Falcons unless the offensive line is much improved.

6. It was a tale of two seasons for the Falcons’ defense. Quinn took over as defensive coordinator before the 2019 season and was a disaster. During the first half of the season, the Falcons unofficially led the NFL in coverage busts and plays when two defenders confusingly stared at each other with their arms up while opponents scampered to the end zone.

According to the Football Outsiders’ Almanac, the defense ranked 29th in the first half of the season. After Quinn handed the keys over to Morris, the results were much better. Atlanta ranked 10th in the second half of the season, although it’s worth pointing out that it was facing an easier schedule. Overall, the Falcons’ defense settled in at 20th in efficiency and had just about league-average (18th) injury luck.

The Falcons played nickel on 69 percent of their snaps and were in base 25 percent of the time.

The big free-agent addition was Fowler. The Falcons used a second-round pick on versatile defensive lineman Marlon Davidson, who could be counted on immediately to provide some interior pass rush. Atlanta also has Allen Bailey to rotate in at defensive tackle.

Foye Oluokun played 30 percent of the snaps last season and will take over for De’Vondre Campbell at linebacker. The Falcons selected cornerback A.J. Terrell with the 16th overall pick and will pair him with Kendall Sheffield and Isaiah Oliver.

Safety Keanu Neal suffered a season-ending Achilles’ injury last year. He has appeared in four total games during the past two seasons.

7. The Falcons ranked 14th against the run last season. Football Outsiders uses a metric called adjusted line yards to measure defensive line play against the run, and Atlanta was 19th.

Falcons run defense
PERSONNEL EPA/RUSH RANK
Base
-0.1
14th
Nickel
-0.02
17th
Vs. 11
0.06
24th
Vs. 12
-0.23
4th
Vs. 2-RB sets
-0.04
N/A

The Falcons were mostly mediocre against the run across the board. They held up well when teams tried to run out of 12 personnel.

Campbell led the Falcons with 71 tackles against the run, followed by Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones, who combined for 13 tackles for loss.

Overall, Atlanta’s run defense will most likely be middle of the pack and perform similarly to last season.

8. Quinn comes from the Pete Carroll tree, which typically means a lot of Cover-3 (a three-deep zone with four underneath defenders), but the Falcons changed things up. They actually played man coverage at the fifth-highest rate of any defense. Atlanta was heavy with its single-high safety coverages (Cover-1 and Cover-3), playing them at the third-highest rate.

Falcons pass defense: Man vs. zone
COVERAGE EPA PER DROPBACK RANK
Man
0.14
28th
Zone
0.12
23rd

The Falcons’ performance was similar, regardless of whether they were playing man or zone. Cover-1 (man coverage with a single deep safety) was their most popular coverage, but the Falcons ranked 26th in EPA per dropback when playing it. They ranked 19th when playing Cover-3. And they were the worst defense in the league when they tried to switch things up and play Cover-2 (a two-deep zone with five underneath defenders).

Falcons pass defense by personnel
PERSONNEL EPA/DROPBACK RANK
Base
0.45
28th
Nickel
0.07
23rd
Vs. 11
0.06
23rd
Vs. 12
0.3
31st

The Falcons got crushed when they faced the pass out of their base defense. They also struggled against 12 personnel.

Limiting explosive plays was a problem for Atlanta. The Falcons ranked 24th in EPA per attempt when opponents threw the ball 20 yards or more downfield. Overall, they gave up explosive plays (20 yards or more) 11.1 percent of the time, which ranked 25th.

Here is how the Falcons performed against different positional targets:

Pass defense vs. different targets
TARGET DVOA/EPA
WR
32nd
TE
6th
RB
13th

Opposing wide receivers lit the Falcons up. They ranked 31st in EPA per attempt to outside wide receivers and 24th when slot receivers were targeted. The Falcons were mediocre against running backs and good against tight ends.

As for personnel, Sheffield played 67 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie. Oliver was a 16-game starter. The Falcons parted ways with mainstay Desmond Trufant. Terrell almost certainly will be asked to play a big role as a rookie.

9. The advanced numbers suggest that the Falcons’ biggest issues were more in coverage than with their pass rush. Atlanta ranked second in ESPN’s pass-rush win-rate metric, which tracks how often the defense gets pressure within 2.5 seconds of the snap. But the Falcons were 28th in percentage of dropbacks with a sack or QB hit.

Why the discrepancy? Opponents got rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less on 54.5 percent of their dropbacks against the Falcons. That was the highest percentage any defense faced. It signals that the coverage was leaky, and receivers were getting open quickly. The glass-half-full perspective would be that the pass rush could put up big numbers if the coverage improved to even mediocre levels.

Vic Beasley had an eight-sack season but left for Tennessee in free agency. Jarrett was the Falcons’ best defensive player, producing 7.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits. He ranked second among defensive tackles in pass-rush win rate, behind only Aaron Donald.

Takk McKinley had 3.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits. The Falcons did not pick up his fifth-year option, so this could be McKinley’s final season in Atlanta.

As for Fowler, he has had an up and down career but will be just 26 going into Week 1. Last offseason, Fowler had to settle for a one-year deal to return to the Los Angeles Rams. It paid off. He produced career highs with 11.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits. The numbers weren’t empty either. Fowler ranked ninth among all edge rushers in pass-rush win rate.

The Falcons ranked 21st in blitz frequency. They gave up a first down on 36.6 percent of the plays in which they blitzed, which ranked 22nd.

Overall, this group has potential. Jarrett is one of the best defensive tackles in the league, and if Fowler can perform like he did last season, they’ll be a tough tandem to block. The Falcons could be really good if McKinley emerges or if Davidson looks good as a rookie. But again, last year showed that a strong pass rush can be negated if they can’t cover. Atlanta needs to find a way to force quarterbacks to hold on to the ball longer in 2020.

10. In terms of in-game decision-making, it’s a small sample, but Quinn has somehow not won a challenge (0-for-6) in the past two seasons. He was, however, on the aggressive end with his fourth-down decision-making.

atl_4thdown-1024x576.jpg

The Falcons had the fifth-best injury luck last season but ranked 24th in fumble luck. They were tied for 24th in turnover margin and ranked 28th in special teams efficiency. The Falcons went 3-4 in one-score games.

Atlanta has the toughest projected strength of schedule in the league going by Vegas win totals. William Hill has them at +600 to win the NFC South, well behind the New Orleans Saints (+100) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+140). Their over/under for wins is 7.5.

The Falcons have some upside. If Ryan can get hot, and if the pass rush can tee off on opposing quarterbacks, earning a playoff spot and even winning the division are realistic outcomes. If Atlanta misses the postseason for the third straight year, the organization likely will enter an offseason of significant change.

 

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1 hour ago, EpicBird said:

Among other things, that’s quite an indictment of Koetter’s performance given some of the talent he’s had. 

Which is why I am calling 6-10 at best.

We have 12-4 talent with 4-12 coaching. This season, if we even have one, will be a disaster, and a waste of one of Ryan's/Jones' waning career seasons. Neither is quite done, but both are nearer the end than the beginning.

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i don’t really see how facing the Saints twice, SF & TB’s offense twice constitutes an easier schedule for the defense.  That’s five of 8 games vs top 5 offenses

 

“According to the Football Outsiders’ Almanac, the defense ranked 29th in the first half of the season. After Quinn handed the keys over to Morris, the results were much better. Atlanta ranked 10th in the second half of the season, although it’s worth pointing out that it was facing an easier schedule. Overall, the Falcons’ defense settled in at 20th in efficiency and had just about league-average (18th) injury luck.

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7 minutes ago, FalconsIn2012 said:

i don’t really see how facing the Saints twice, SF & TB’s offense twice constitutes an easier schedule for the defense.  That’s five of 8 games vs top 5 offenses

 

“According to the Football Outsiders’ Almanac, the defense ranked 29th in the first half of the season. After Quinn handed the keys over to Morris, the results were much better. Atlanta ranked 10th in the second half of the season, although it’s worth pointing out that it was facing an easier schedule. Overall, the Falcons’ defense settled in at 20th in efficiency and had just about league-average (18th) injury luck.

Likely just going off records, which Panthers, Bucs and Jags would bring it down.  Says more about how brutal the first half was than how easy the second half was tbh.

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22 hours ago, red falcon said:

I agree with the coverage and pass rush analysis.  When they challenged the wrs at the line we had more success. This will help Takk.

Same, I was saying this a lot last year and all off season.  It will really come down to how well AJ adapts early.

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What is the deal with Koetter?

In his first run here he was forced to adapt to Mularkey's offense while installing a handful of his ideas. Now in his second run he is forced to adapt to Shanny's offense while installing some of his ideas. 

He's never run a full version of his offense here. He's had some good work doing it elsewhere and some not so good work too. 

The first half of the season the offense looked pretty lost for a team running the same offense. The looked better in the second half, but not great.

I still don't understand the drive to bring him back. Also why would he take the job knowing he couldn't run his offense? Maybe there wasn't another job out there. If that's the case, why offer him one?

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On 7/29/2020 at 11:47 AM, EpicBird said:

Among other things, that’s quite an indictment of Koetter’s performance given some of the talent he’s had. 

If you look at Koetter's career stats as an OC, he's never done anything of any consequence. Mediocrity personified. One of Quinn's most dubious hires, and that's saying something. This one though could end up being his Waterloo.

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22 minutes ago, PokerSteve said:

If you look at Koetter's career stats as an OCs, he's never done anything of any consequence. Mediocrity personified. One of Quinn's most dubious hires, and that's saying something. This one though could end up being his Waterloo.

Sadly it was probably by blank.

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