ESPN: Falcons New Favorites in NFC South

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ESPN: Falcons New Favorites in NFC South

Postby Pudge » Wed Sep 23, 2015 12:19 am ... orites-nfl

Falcons are now NFC South favorites

AP Photo/Seth Wenig
Mike Sando, NFL Insider
The 2-0 Atlanta Falcons check in at 18th on ESPN's Football Power Index, which paradoxically rates their playoff chances at 75.3 percent, the fifth-highest in the NFL. The 75.3 figure sounds absurd if you've paid attention to the roster atrophy that has left Matt Ryan and Julio Jones to fend for themselves over the past couple seasons. But when taking into account schedules and Drew Brees' injury within the NFC South, an opening is certainly there for the Falcons to reach the postseason in Dan Quinn's debut season as head coach.

Here, we consider what the Falcons have going for them both on and off the field, backed by insights from a veteran NFL coach who has analyzed them. Also, we'll take a run around the league heading toward Week 3, with early reads on Indianapolis, where the tension is palpable, and Philadelphia, where the quarterback doesn't look right.

The Falcons as favorites

The Falcons are getting their share of breaks. They opened against the Eagles, whose offense has floundered to an unanticipated degree. The Giants team they drew in Week 2 had its pass-rush undercut when top pass-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul lost part of his hand during a fireworks explosion. The Falcons will now face Dallas right after the Cowboys lost quarterback Tony Romo to a broken clavicle.

The Power Index now pegs the Falcons' chances against the Romo-less Cowboys at about 50 percent, nearly the same as their freshly recalculated chances for winning the NFC South, where the FPI gives Atlanta a 49.1 percent chance to win the division, a 16.9 percent jump from the preseason. The Panthers are given a 44.9 percent chance, leaving Atlanta as the current favorites. For now.

The changes reflect what has happened to the Falcons' opponents more than any demonstrable gains Atlanta has made in victories over the Eagles and Giants. The Falcons' FPI rankings have inched up three spots to seventh for offense, one spot to 25th for defense, three spots to 17th for special teams and two spots to 18th overall.

There's a gap between what the numbers say and the optimism I heard from a defensive coach I consulted after he reviewed the Atlanta tape.

"It's a long season, and two games is not enough to draw conclusions, but I really like what they are doing," this coach said. "All the fundamentals are installed. They have the big guys running and the little guys hitting. They have great body posture, which allows for explosive changes of direction in the underneath coverage, which should limit YAC [yards after catch]. They have a four-man rush and know how to rush. Combine low YAC with violent tackling and tons of jerseys to the ball, it looks good."

That sounds great, but some of the stats through two games suggest Atlanta is suffering from the same defensive issues that made the 2014 Falcons unusually bad (they became the only team over the past nine seasons to have both a losing record and a Total QBR score above 70).

First-year Falcons coach Dan Quinn has brought a new look to what was a bad defense in 2014. AP Photo/Peter Morgan
While quarterback Matt Ryan remains productive, ESPN game charting shows the Falcons currently ranking 30th in getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and 24th in defensive expected points added (EPA).

Early grading from Pro Football Focus has been more encouraging. The Falcons' offensive line ranks second in pass blocking. Both Atlanta offensive tackles have graded positively so far (their predecessors were heavily in the negative at this point last season). Rookie defensive end Vic Beasley, drafted in the first round, ranks second to Seattle's Cliff Avril in pass-rushing among 4-3 defensive ends (he is sixth overall, counting run defense).

When Quinn was defensive coordinator in Seattle, he called plays for a team that swarmed pass catchers, limiting them to a league-low 4.4 yards after the catch (per reception). His Falcons have already allowed 53 yards after one catch (to Odell Beckham) and 35 yards after another (to Shane Vereen), which explains why they rank only 24th in YAC/reception allowed. The two big pass plays allowed against the Giants were the only 30-plus receiving gains against Atlanta through two games, however. The Falcons had allowed a league-worst five at this point last season (they allowed 21 all season, which ranked 20th and was a couple worse than average).

"They've got a good plan, [and] they were making us throw the ball underneath a lot all day," Eli Manning said after the game. "We hit the big one to Odell, but we didn't get the ball down the field. They weren't going to let us do that."

The coach who studied the Falcons thought the manner in which they swarmed to the ball suggests Quinn has gotten the players' attention. He said head coaches highly involved in one side of the ball -- Quinn is in that category -- have an advantage of daily involvement that promotes clarity and accountability to both players and coaches.

Quinn has the players' attention and, at least early, the Falcons have ours.

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