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How struggling Falcons can salvage season
2d - NFL ATLANTA FALCONS
ESPN NFL Insider Louis Riddick reacts to Julio Jones' comments about his role in the Falcons' offense.
KC Joyner, ESPN Senior Writer
There isn't an NFL team that has had a more roller coaster-like drop to its season than the Atlanta Falcons. Dan Quinn's club started off by winning its first five games, but has gone 1-6 since and would not make the playoffs if the postseason were to start now.
A lot of blame for this decline is being placed on the mistakes by quarterback Matt Ryan. It is true that Ryan has made some game-impacting gaffes of late, but in reality the issues that have hamstrung this team have less to do with Ryan's limitations and more to do with a conservative approach.
The good news is if that approach changes and the Falcons adopt more aggressive play calling in their last four games, they might be able to salvage the season.
Bad decision rate
Let's get the big issue out of the way first.
Ryan has taken a ton of grief for his mistakes, but he actually has posted an acceptable 1.2 percent mark in my bad decision rate (BDR) metric.
BDR measures how often a passer makes a mental error that leads to a turnover opportunity for the opposing team. This 1.2 percent mark is one-tenth of a percentage point lower than the 1.3 percent leaguewide average in BDR. It also is a significant improvement over Ryan's 2.0 percent BDR in 2014.
Ryan has always been something of a risk-taker, but this issue is not what has caused this team's downfall.
The Falcons would be wise to let Matt Ryan take more chances downfield. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The Falcons' offense is what carried this team during the five-game winning streak.
In that time frame, Atlanta ranked tied for third in points per drive (2.6) and fourth in percentage of drives that ended with a score (44.6 percent).
Since then, the Falcons rank 27th in points per drive (1.5) and 24th in drive score percentage (29.9 percent).
Because the defense showed a slight improvement in points allowed per drive during the winning streak (2.0) and in subsequent games (1.8), it can be said that the decline in offensive production is largely to blame for this team's woes.
Not utilizing Julio Jones enough on stretch vertical or end zone throws
That brings to mind the question that Jones brought up after the Week 13 loss to the Buccaneers: Why is he not being used more often? This lack of utilization is most notable in two areas.
The first is stretch vertical targets, which are aerials thrown 20 or more yards downfield. Jones currently ranks tied for 16th in this category with 19 stretch vertical targets.
Ted Ginn Jr., whose name almost never appears on social media without the word "drop" next to it, has as many stretch vertical targets as Jones. Travis Benjamin, a mediocre Cleveland pass-catcher, has more (20). Even Martavis Bryant, who is equal to Jones in terms of downfield talent but has played in only seven games this year, has tallied a higher number of stretch vertical targets (23).
As damaging as the lack of downfield throws is, the dearth of end zone targets could be just as impactful. Jones has seen only five end zone pass attempts this season. That total ranks tied for 52nd among all players.
The most mind-boggling part of that last statistic is that 11 tight ends have more end zone targets than Jones does. That has to be why Jones felt the need to vent about this subject after the Tampa Bay game -- he knows he could do more in those situations.
Rushing attack is not elite
One potential justification for getting away from the downfield and end zone throws is that the Devonta Freeman-led Atlanta rushing attack has performed so well.
This is true to some extent, as Freeman was helping to carry this offense at one time, but he hasn't posted a 100-yard rushing game since October and hasn't scored a rushing touchdown since Week 6.
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It isn't all on Freeman, either, as Atlanta's rushing game metrics have not been dominant this year. The Falcons have tallied a 41.4 percent mark in my good blocking rate (GBR) metric, which measures how often an offensive blocking wall gives its ball carriers quality run blocking (which is very roughly defined as not allowing the defense to disrupt a rush attempt). That is fewer than two percentage points above the 39.6 percent league average in this metric.
Atlanta also rates roughly average in my good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) metric. This measures how many yards per attempt a ball carrier gains when given quality run blocking. The Falcons' 8.2-yard mark in this category is only one-tenth of a yard higher than the leaguewide GBYPA average of 8.1.
Put this all together and it means that while Atlanta does have the makings of a solid rushing attack, it isn't the type that can serve as the centerpiece of a dominant offense.
Not getting the most out of superb vertical pass coverage
One potential downside of leaning more on the vertical and stretch vertical passing game is that it can cause the other team to adopt a similar approach and thus put more pressure on the Falcons' vertical and stretch vertical pass defense.
Avoiding those circumstances might be a positive for many teams, but it looks like getting the other team to attempt downfield throws more often is exactly what Atlanta should want its opponents to do.
The Falcons rank third in the league in Total QBR on vertical passes (45.9 on aerials thrown 11 or more yards downfield) and fourth in stretch vertical Total QBR (24.4).
This approach also could lead to more turnovers, as Atlanta ranks fourth in overall interception percentage (3.3 percent) and fourth in interception percentage on vertical passes (6.5 percent).
High-scoring games may be the only way to defeat Carolina
Two of the Falcons' remaining games are against the undefeated Carolina Panthers. Because Carolina is averaging 31.1 points per game, the third-highest total in the league, it would seem that trying to slow things down would be the way to go.
But a higher-percentage way is to turn the game into a high-scoring contest. The reasoning here is that since 1983 only 17 teams have ended the season scoring 500 or more points (a pace the Panthers are only 2.4 points per game short of reaching).
Those clubs won 81.8 percent of their overall games, but won only 62 percent of the time when the opponent scored 24 or more points. Eleven of those 17 teams actually had win percentages below the 62 percent mark when giving up 24 or more points.
Because Carolina has allowed 24 or more points in three of its past six games, this certainly looks to be an achievable goal for the Falcons to reach in an effort to take this otherwise daunting pair of matchups and turn them into 50-50 propositions.
The conservative approach the Falcons have used over their past seven games has not been working. A change to a more aggressive offensive play-calling style would likely do this team a lot of good and could even give the Falcons a chance to pull off the upset of the year against the Panthers.
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