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The Falcons' potentially fatal flaws
Atlanta must correct problems on the ground or 6-0 start may mean little
Originally Published: October 16, 2012
By Vince Verhei | Football Outsiders
With the newest set of ESPN's NFL Power Rankings released Tuesday, the Atlanta Falcons are perched on top of the pile. As the NFL's lone undefeated team, they're an easy selection. Unless you view the Falcons the way we do at Football Outsiders.
Our newest set of DVOA rankings will be published Tuesday afternoon, and they're going to have the Falcons way down in eighth place. This is a very good team, but a flawed one, and even in victory they've shown too many weaknesses to be considered the best team in the league.
The Football Outsiders rankings aren't based on opinion polls -- they're based on DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), a proprietary system that evaluates every play of the NFL season one at a time and adjusts for down, distance, score, quality of opposition and other factors. There is no vote, there is no debate, only the results of a mathematical formula. And that formula sees plenty of black marks on Atlanta's résumé.
Let's start with quality of opposition. The Falcons are 6-0, but the six teams have a combined record of 12-22. None has a winning record, and on average, they're getting outscored by 3.7 points per game.
It would be one thing if Atlanta was blowing these foes off the field, but that's not the case. Quite the opposite, in fact. Four of the Falcons' wins were decided by less than a touchdown. Three weeks in a row, they've needed go-ahead scores late in the fourth quarter to escape with narrow wins.
Sunday's game was a perfect example. Matt Ryan threw three interceptions that helped Oakland take a 13-7 lead into halftime. The Falcons scratched their way back to a tie score and took the lead on an Asante Samuel pick-six, but the Falcons' defense allowed the Raiders to drive the field and tie the game with less than a minute to go. That was just enough time to set up Matt Bryant for a game-winning field goal, his third of the day, this one from 55 yards.
Some observers see this game and say the Falcons overcame adversity. DVOA sees this game and says Atlanta got a gift defensive touchdown, and still needed to be bailed out by a heroic effort from their kicker -- all at home against a team that entered the game 1-3. In DVOA's eyes, that's a bad game, even if Atlanta came away with a W. Same story for the games against Carolina and Washington. These are not good teams, but each had Atlanta on the ropes, and the Falcons didn't win so much as they escaped.
We've established why DVOA sees flaws in this Atlanta team, but we haven't pointed out what those flaws are. It's pretty clear: The Falcons can't run the ball and they can't stop the run, either. That shows up in basic stats, such as yards per game and yards per carry, and also in some of Football Outsiders' advanced stats. You can see our glossary for more information on these numbers, but here's how they work in a nutshell:
• Success rate (SR): The percentage of each team's carries (running backs only) that gain meaningful yardage towards a new set of downs.
• Second-level yards (SLY): Average yards gained 5 to 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.
• Open-field yards (OFY): Average yards gained 10 or more yards downfield.
• Power: Percentage of short-yardage runs that gain a first down or touchdown.
Atlanta's 2012 rushing statistics
League rank in parentheses
Stat Offense Defense
Yds/Gm 86.5 (25) 143.8 (27)
Yds/Run 3.7 (26) 5.2 (31)
SR 41% (28) 55% (27)
SLY 0.95 (25) 1.34 (26)
OFY 0.52 (22) 1.33 (31)
Power 33% (32) 63% (16)
The table to the right shows how Atlanta's offense and defense have performed in each of these categories, and where they rank in the league. It's not a pretty picture:
Some concrete examples of said shortcomings: Michael Turner had good games against San Diego and Carolina, but in each of his other four games, he's averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry. His backups are even worse -- Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling have combined to rush 37 times for only 88 yards. That's 2.4 yards per carry.
On the other side of the ball, they bottled up Oakland's Darren McFadden this weekend, but that was the exception, not the rule. Denver's Willis McGahee gained 113 yards on 22 carries against Atlanta. Washington's Alfred Morris had 115 yards on 18 runs. Kansas City's Jamaal Charles: 16 carries for 87. Carolina's DeAngelo Williams had 11 for 49, and Cam Newton had nine for 86.
That's all of the bad news for Atlanta. The good news? The teams remaining on its schedule are almost as soft as those it already has beaten. Only two of the Falcons' future opponents have winning records, and one of them, Arizona, probably will be below .500 when it plays the Falcons in mid-November. The only real test will come when the Falcons host the New York Giants in December.
For all of their weak points, however, the Falcons are still a dangerous squad. Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez are perhaps the league's best trio of receivers, and the opportunistic pass defense is in the top 10 in both interceptions and sacks. They may not finish with a perfect record, but they're almost certain to host a playoff game.
The problem for Atlanta, though, is that some of the NFC's playoff favorites have strengths that fit perfectly with the Falcons' weaknesses. Can you imagine what Matt Forte and the Bears could do to this defense? Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks? Frank Gore and the 49ers? Ahmad Bradshaw and the Giants?
If the Falcons can't find a way to get better on the ground on both sides of the ball, they could be one-and-done in the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.