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Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – June 27, 2016
POSTED BY: AARON FREEMAN JUNE 27, 2016
One of the most underwritten aspects of the Atlanta Falcons’ 2015 season was the disappearance of their running game in the second half of the season. It’s going to be interesting to see how that potentially affects their upcoming 2016 campaign.
Through the first seven weeks of 2015, the Falcons were among the league’s top rushing teams. They ranked second in the league with 907 rushing yards and also paced the league with 11 scores on the ground. Their second-ranked 208 rushing attempts through seven games also was indicative of their early-season success, as how many times teams run the ball is the rushing statistic that correlates best with winning.
However after that point the Falcons ground game ground to a halt. From Week Eight onward, no team in the NFL had less rushing yards than the Falcons. No team also scored less touchdowns on the ground as the Falcons managed just two scores over the final nine games of the regular season. Also the number of rush attempts fell to 25th most in the league over that span.
They were also among the league’s most inefficient running the ball as well. After a healthy 10th-ranked 4.36 yards per carry through the first seven weeks of the season, that figure fell to 31st over the final nine games when the Falcons averaged just 3.28 yards per carry.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Devonta Freeman rushed for 12 yards on 12 carries against the San Francisco 49ers in 2015
It is difficult to say what were the causes of this downshift in rushing fortunes. Certainly the injury to Devonta Freeman that occurred at the outset of the Week 11 game against the Indianapolis Colts played a factor into it. But it’s hard to say that was the leading cause since Freeman’s least productive game of the year came two weeks earlier against the San Francisco 49ers before the team’s bye. That suggests that the downward trend may have already begun before Freeman was sidelined for the better part of two games.
Certainly the blocking must have played a factor in the team’s rushing decline, although how much is hard to gauge. The tape shows that there were a more missed assignments. This is evidenced by the number of rushing plays that were stuffed for zero or negative yards.
Over the course of the first seven games, the Falcons were stuffed for no gain or negative yardage 35 times. That represents about one-sixth (16.8 percent) of their total rushing attempts over that span. Over the final nine games they were stuffed 60 times, which was over a quarter (28 percent) of their rushing attempts.
If that is attributed to poor blocking, then it seems that Freeman suffered worst from it. During the first seven weeks of the season, only 20 of Freeman’s 131 rushes (15 percent) were stuffed. That figured doubled in the second half when 43 of his 134 rushes (32 percent) over the final nine games were stuffed.
Tevin Coleman didn’t suffer the same fate with a slight improvement over the second half of the season. He was stuffed on 18 percent of his runs in the first seven games, but that figure slightly improved to 16 percent in the back nine. That is hardly a change at all, which suggests that if the blocking overall was the overriding cause then it should have affected both players somewhat equally.
Freeman Plagued by Negative Runs in Second Half of 2015
What is interesting upon a deeper dive into the numbers on that front is how it seemed to be that the poor blocking for Freeman seemed to kick in right after the first seven games.
During his first five starts from Weeks Three through Seven, Freeman was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage on just 13 of his 109 runs (12 percent). Within that span, there was no better rusher than Freeman in the league.
His 578 rushing yards were the most of any back in the league during that five-game span and his 5.3 yards per carry was the seventh highest among backs that had received at least 50 carries during that stretch of games. He also doubled the output in rushing touchdowns (eight) of the next best runner.
During that five-game stretch, in only one game did Freeman get stuffed on more than 20 percent of his runs. That came against the Houston Texans in Week Four when he was stuffed three times on 14 carries (21 percent). It makes sense given that Houston was without a doubt the best rushing defense Atlanta faced during that span, finishing the year ranked 10th in rushing yards allowed.
But starting in Week Eight against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Freeman saw an increase in the amount of runs that went for zero or negative yardage. He was stuffed six times on 21 carries (29 percent) and for each of his last six appearances thereafter besides the matchup against the Colts when he had only three carries, Freeman was stuffed on at least 24 percent of his rushing attempts.
The Bucs were also one of the league’s better run defenses in 2015, finishing just behind the Texans in 11th place. It’s also worth poiting out that the Falcons had two matchups against the fourth-ranked Carolina Panthers in the second half of the season, as well as the 15th-ranked Jacksonville Jaguars. So there is certainly some credence to the reality that the increased toughness of the opposing defenses probably played a part in the decline of their rushing attack.
But the same cannot be said of the 49ers and New Orleans Saints, who ranked 29th and 31st against the run respectively in 2015. Yet both teams were able to stuff Freeman a healthy amount of times, with the 49ers dropping him for a loss on five of 12 (42 percent) run plays and the Saints six of 25 times (24 percent).
It may be less an issue in terms of the quality of competition, but simply because opposing defenses were keying more effectively on Freeman as to explain the dip in his production.
After that five-game stretch in which he was the best running back in the entire league, perhaps teams realized how much of a threat he was and took more effort to stuffing the box to defend against him and seemingly their endeavors paid off.
Falcons’ Ability to Run With Lead Also Declined in 2015
Another stat that is also somewhat indicative of opponents doing a better job keying on the Falcons rushing attack is looking at their rushing success in the second half when they held a lead.
The reason why rush attempts correlate best with overall success in the NFL is because teams that have leads are more prone to run the ball, in part to run out of the clock and salt away the game. Teams that are behind are much more prone to pass in order to score points quicker to overcome any scoring deficit.
The evidence of this is clear. Last year teams ran the ball 54 percent of the time in the second halves of games when they held a lead compared to just 45 percent of time in the first quarter regardless of score when teams are expected to “establish the run.” And teams that hold leads in the second halves of games are much likelier to continue to hold that lead at the end of the game, and thus the relatively high correlation between wins and rush attempts.
When breaking down the Falcons second-half rushing success in the first seven games versus the last nine, one sees somewhat of a disparity.
Interestingly enough despite their 6-1 record to start the season, the Falcons ran a play from scrimmage with a second-half lead in just four of their first seven games. Combining the rushing totals of Freeman and Coleman, the Falcons averaged 4.04 yards on 54 carries and had a success rate of 46.3 percent on those second-half runs.
Over the final nine weeks, the Falcons managed a second-half lead in five games and Freeman and Coleman combined for 32 carries while averaging 2.72 yards with a success rate of 37.5 percent.
It’s apparent that opponents over the last nine games in 2015 were much more effective at shutting down the Falcons running game when they knew it was coming.
Of course that raises question marks about offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling and how much of a factor that played into the team’s late-season rushing struggles.
Falcons Play-Calling May Have Been Less a Factor than Execution
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Given Shanahan’s finite popularity, it would be easy to blame him or his predictable play-calling for the second-half collapse of the Falcons ground attack. Especially in lieu of the numbers that show teams were far more effective at putting the clamps on the Falcons defense when they knew they were going to run.
It’s certainly fair to suggest that play-calling was a factor, but probably wasn’t the most overwhelming factor. The predictability of play-calling is something that I believe is often overrated because NFL teams spend so much time during the practice week leading up to games on deciphering formations, tendencies and keys to the point that there is very little that a NFL defense doesn’t see coming on Sundays.
The reason why a team is successful running the ball isn’t because they completely caught their opponent off guard. That plays a part of it and certainly is a reason why a team like the New England Patriots utilize two tight ends in order to give them added flexibility to run or pass. But it’s not as if New England was somehow the league’s most dominant rushing team because of that reason. With a lead the second halves of games, they were fairly middling in terms of their rushing production in 2015.
In fact the teams that averaged the most yards per run with a second-half lead were the Minnesota Vikings (6.1), Seattle Seahawks (5.3), Arizona Cardinals (5.2) and St. Louis Rams (5.1). Those teams were successful because they were able to execute better than their opponents in those instances.
Not coincidentally, running backs Adrian Peterson (680 yards), Thomas Rawls (422) and Todd Gurley (421) were a big part of the reason why those teams executed so well since they paced the league with the most individual rushing yards in those instances. And the combination of Chris (324) and David Johnson (223) gave the Cardinals a big boost as well.
Powerful runners like Peterson, Rawls and Gurley are ideally suited to grind down opposing defenses in the second halves of games. Notably all three runners were atop the league in terms of big runs of 15 or more yards in the second half when their teams had leads, indicating their explosive ability to gash defenses for chunk yardage after wearing them down.
One wonders if a smaller, quicker “slasher” like Freeman possesses that same potential. If based off last year’s rushing success the answer appears to be no.
Freeman was one of 21 rushers that ran the ball at least 50 times in 2015 when his respective team had a second-half lead and only two averaged less yards per carry than him. Freeman’s 3.18 yards per carry in such situations only managed to outpace Rashad Jennings (3.02) and Frank Gore (2.93).
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Coleman fared better in those situations, averaging 4.78 yards on 18 carries. But he only saw two extended opportunities with 15 of his carries coming in the season-opener against the Philadelphia Eagles and later in the Colts game when Freeman was sidelined with an injury. It’s just not a big enough sample size to draw a strong conclusion one way or the other.
Yet there is at least some evidence based off that limited sample that perhaps the reason for Coleman’s second-half success is due to his explosive speed tiring out opponents similar to runners like Peterson and Gurley. That is further evidenced when comparing Coleman and Freeman’s success based off the quality of opponent.
Falcons 2015 Struggles Partially Due to Premium Competition
If one looks only at the games in which the Falcons faced a run defense that ranked among the top 16 in 2015, one sees a drop in production compared to other games against lesser fronts. The Falcons faced a top 16 run defense six times last year, squaring off against the Panthers and Buccaneers twice, as well as the Texans and Jaguars.
In those games, Freeman and Coleman combined to average 3.59 yards per carry and had a success rate of 42.1 percent. But Freeman averaged 3.44 yards per carry with a success rate of 38 percent versus Coleman’s 4.77-yard average and 77 percent success rate. To be fair to Freeman, Coleman only had 13 carries in those six games so it once again represents a very small sample size.
But in the 10 other games in which the Falcons faced run defenses that finished the year ranked 17th or lower, Freeman averaged 4.36 yards per carry and had a success rate of 51 percent. Coleman averaged 4.46 yards per carry and had a success rate of 43.2 percent. That led to a combined total which averaged 4.39 yards per carry for the two running backs and a combined success rate of 48.5 percent.
It’s very shocking to see how big a drop-off in production that Freeman suffered against top defenses. The fact that his yards per carry nearly dropped a full yard and his success rate dropped 25 percent is shocking.
Disregarding the smaller sample size, Coleman didn’t see any attrition against improved competition. One might conclude that Coleman’s ability to gain yardage in larger chunks due to his explosive speed might prove more effective against quality run defenses. Explosive plays tend to be the best way to attack higher-caliber defenses.
Yet at least in 2015, there were legit concerns over whether Freeman could succeed not only against stacked fronts but also quality run defenses. That problem is only likely to grow in 2016.
Falcons To Face Much Stiffer Competition in 2016
The Falcons will add three more games against Top 16 run defenses this upcoming season based off last year’s rankings. In fact the team will face four of the league’s five best run defenses from a year ago, including the top-ranked Seahawks, third-ranked Denver Broncos, fourth-ranked Panthers and fifth-ranked Cardinals.
The Kansas City Chiefs (eighth ranked), Buccaneers (11th) and Oakland Raiders (13th) round out their oppeontns from the top 16. Another team that is worth mentioning is the Los Angeles (née St. Louis) Rams, who finished 20th in run defense last year if measured by yards, but managed a seventh place finish based off Football Outsiders’ DVOA efficiency metric.
It’s clear the Falcons are going to be poised to face a lot more tougher fronts this year. Three or four extra games against opponents that know how to effectively defend the run could be problematic, particularly if the Falcons run game doesn’t show a marked improvement in their ability to run against stacked fronts.
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
That’s where the addition of center Alex Mack in free agency as well as the expectation that the increased cohesion from the rest of the offensive line after spending another year working together comes into play. That should help reduce the number of negative plays that became rampant over the last nine weeks of 2015.
Throw in the potential that Coleman should have an increased role as well, and there is hope. Last year Coleman wasn’t much affected neither by the quality of opponent nor the predictability of the run in the second halves of games on a limited sample. If that proves to remain the same with increased reps in 2016, then that too will play into expectations that the Falcons running game will have marked improvement this upcoming season.
But there are still lingering question in regards to Freeman. He’ll have to show increased production this upcoming season when asked to salt away games in the second half as well as proving he can hold his own against premium competition.
If he doesn’t, then it doesn’t necessarily diminish his value to the team because we already know that at his best Freeman can be one of the league’s most effective runners. But it does indicate that he might not quite be the true “workhorse” back that other top runners around the league are.
Not measuring up to the likes of Peterson and Gurley is by no means a crime. But it does raise concerns over whether or not the true cause of the Falcons’ second-half rushing collapse in 2015 was because they were missing a key component in their backfield.
That component potentially being a runner that can “grind” the tough yards and wear down opponents. Alfred Morris performed that function during Shanahan’s days with the Washington Redskins and someone has to emerge to do the same in Atlanta.
Coleman Might Play a Larger Role to Help Sustain Falcons Run Game
If Coleman cannot step up and help fill that void this upcoming season, that is going to be something that the Falcons have to consider acquiring headed into 2017. At this point, it seems doubtful such an acquisition would have a major impact on Freeman’s value with the team in the future, but it definitely could affect Coleman’s future.
Such a runner could potentially surpass Coleman as the team’s go-to second option behind Freeman. That’s why it’s not a huge stretch to suggest that 2016 could be a make-or-break season for the second-year runner in Coleman.
If Coleman doesn’t step up and prove himself a valuable commodity in some capacity to the team this year, then there’s reason to believe that the team’s 2015 third-round draft choice could be supplanted in the lineup in the near future.
As things sit today, it’s impossible to see with any clarity on how the situation plays out for either Coleman or Freeman in 2016.
Ultimately the root causes of the Falcons’ struggles to run the ball in the second half of 2015 still aren’t exactly known. As opposed to one primary factor, it probably came as a result of several including Freeman’s injury and running style, limited usage of Coleman, declining offensive line play, increased level of opposing competition and questionable play-calling.
But one thing is definitely known in that the Falcons have to be more consistent and effective running the ball against a much tougher slate of opponents this year, else there will be consequences. What those consequences are, only time will tell.
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