Going into the 2018 season, the Atlanta Falcons had high hopes. Personnel-wise, they had units with top-10 potential on both sides of the ball. One group delivered: their offense ranked 6th in EPA/dropback (0.18); QB Matt Ryan ranked 9th in QBR. Finishing below .500 with these numbers is a tough pill to swallow. There are several reasons why the Falcons finished 7-9.
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Some Late-Game Struggles
They went 4-4 in close games. While this is a decent indicator of luck in general, not all close games are equal. In their four narrow wins, the Falcons had two-possession leads at some point during the fourth quarter in all of them. In three of their four close losses (vs. PHI, NO, CIN), Atlanta had a lead late in the fourth. But they gave those games away, with a mix of predictive play-calling, scoring too early or not getting any breaks on defense. They also struggled in the red zone at times, especially running the ball near the goal line where the run game should be extremely efficient.
After starting 4-4, they had a rough stretch, losing five straight to put their season into the trashcan. Head coach, Dan Quinn’s defense, lost some essential players like MLB Deion Jones, safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen early in the season. Their coverage was terrible for the most part, and they couldn’t create enough pressure in distinct passing situations. On third and fourth downs, their defense allowed the third-highest DVOA (0.324) after NYG and OAK.
Regression-wise, the Falcons only have some little positive things going on for them. Sure, they will get the aforementioned defensive players back. But overall, their injury luck was precisely average. They had 77.9 adjusted games lost, which was 0.24 fewer than the league average. They went 4-4 in close games, had a turnover margin of +0.1 and had “just” 7.8 Pythagorean wins. Atlanta played an easy schedule on offense and an average one on defense.
Dan Quinn’s Offensive Philosophy
Before we dig into the personnel, it’s essential to address the coaching setup. Defensive-mind Dan Quinn is still the head coach and will take over play-calling responsibilities this season. Former Bucs HC Dirk Koetter, who was Atlanta’s OC from 2012 to 2014, replaced Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator. Ground-and-pound enthusiast Mike Mularkey will coach the tight ends, but it seems like he also has some assistant role.
Dan Quinn is a Pete Carroll disciple; he is an “establish the run” truther and believes that stopping the run on defense should be the primary goal. It’s no secret anymore that the NFL is a passing league and the run game only plays a minor role. Each offensive philosophy should follow the goal of being as efficient as possible. Running the ball for the sake of it, to stay “balanced” or to set up play-action is dumb. Even though it’s Dirk Koetter’s offense, he will make sure that he runs his unit according to Dan Quinn’s philosophy. He said recently said they ‘have been adjusting to the style of football Quinn wants to see out of that unit’. It’s not great news for Falcons fans. Dan Quinn’s offensive philosophy is highly questionable, as indicated by the following four quotes from an article in January:
- “Having that kind of balance, Dirk and I both agree, is the best way to attack and is the best way to feature the guys on our team”
- “The thing I think for us to get back from an identity standpoint is the amount of run attempts,”
- “What I’d like to make sure is we can feature … the run game” to make play-action passes more effective.
- “We’re going to work really hard at that,” he said, adding “That will be a big part of our identity, not just this year but for years to come.”
Run More, Punt More
These quotes mirror everything you do NOT want to hear from an NFL head coach. A run-first offense is a wrong approach to NFL football, especially when you have Matt Ryan and a lethal passing attack. Wanting to stay balanced is the wrong approach, too. Before week 13 last year, coming off a 17-31 prime-time loss at New Orleans, Quinn named three areas his team has to improve: 1. Win the turnover margin, 2. Get the run game going and 3. Stop the run. Especially about the second part, Quinn said he wants balance and make the play-action go. They had a top-10 passing attack and ranked 5th in play-action yards per play – despite having a below-average run game and not being ‘balanced’ enough. The quality or the volume of the run game has nothing to do with how effective teams are at play-action. NFL teams establish the run when they leave their locker rooms.
The defense had the worst run EPA/play since 2009 (0.14), but it correlates little to win games. You always need to stop the pass or at least prevent it to a certain degree so that your offense has an advantage. If your passing attack is efficient and you also use it efficiently (two different things), you will inevitably score many points and force your opponent to stop running the ball. Prime example: the 2018 Chiefs had a brutal run defense, but where a flag away from the Super Bowl. Dan Quinn’s approach to offense increases the probability of scoring fewer points, going into more and longer third downs, and also of punting more.
A Revamped Offensive Line for the Falcons
The willingness to run the ball only for the sake of it must be matched with quality offensive line play, among others. After the retirement of the injury-riddled LG Andy Levitre and the release of RT Ryan Schraeder, the Falcons had some work to do. Thomas Dimitroff drafted guard Chris Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary whom I both expect to start in week one. Former Jets-guard James Carpenter should be penciled in on the left side. There is a lot of uncertainty with this group. While James Carpenter isn’t an upgrade, the right side heavily depends on the development of the rookies.
According to the College charting of Pro Football Focus, Lindstrom ranked 1st in pass-blocking grade at his position, McGary ranked 10th. Pass blocking grade has stable predictive value translating to the pro game. However, predicting success for rookie offensive linemen is still hard to do. Especially when they are forced into more run-blocking snaps than necessary, this will inevitably lead to some longer passing downs. Center Alex Mack and LT Jake Matthews are both above average to good starters. With Carpenter and the two rookies, the range of possible outcomes for this unit is wide.
I don’t need to lose many words about the receiving corps. Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mo Sanu in 11 personnel are top-notch. Atlanta’s tight end group could need an upgrade though; Austin Hooper isn’t near the top group at his position, Logan Paulsen is primarily a run-blocker. The offense is set up for success but depends on the development of both rookie offensive linemen and help via play-calling. They can be explosive and efficient on early downs and score a lot of points. But their head coach wants to be balanced. Somewhere, Mike Leach is shaking his head.
Will the Falcons Fly on Defense?
Atlanta got a lot of speed and range on defense, but this is the year they need to bring it on the EPA and DVOA boards. Grady Jarrett is a stud pass rusher from the inside who might develop into a borderline All-Pro starter next year. Next, Jack Crawford and young Deadrin Senat will share the load. The question mark remains where the full dose of pass rush should come from. Takkarist McKinley has been their best edge rusher last year and will develop further. But Vic Beasley remains inefficient, and Adrian Clayborn is a below average pass rusher over his career. Dan Quinn, who loves getting pressure with four rushers, will need to get creative with this unit. He took over play-calling duties from fired ex-DC Marquand Manuel.
The back-seven has potential. Deion Jones is one of the best coverage linebackers in the league, De’Vondre Campbell struggled in his absence last year. However, Campbell will only need to fill the role next to Jones, who will get the critical tasks in coverage. Desmond Trufant is one of the better cornerbacks in the league, but he got burned quite sometimes last year. Opposite him, second-year player Isaiah Oliver will get the starting gig. Oliver was a Brett-Kollmann-favorite coming out of college. Oliver was the fourth cornerback on the depth chart last season and only played 240 snaps, according to PFF.
The slot is a big question mark. Blidi Wreh-Wilson is an outside corner, Kendall Sheffield is a green rookie. My best guess is that they will try to rotate safeties Damontae Kazee, Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal around. Allen and Neal missed almost all of 2018. On paper, this defense has some intriguing coverage potential. But the pass rush should remain a weakness, and it’s not easy to predict quality production from Oliver and the slot cornerback position.
The schedule is going to get harder for the Falcons in 2019. According to the win totals market at Pinnacle (06/11), Atlanta is projected to play the seventh-hardest schedule (0.5127) next year. Their defense is going to face the eight-strongest program in opposing EPA per pass from 2018. That has a decent predictive value year-to-year. Passing EPA per play correlates year-to-year at R^2 = 0.1994 since 2010. The NFC South is probably going to be more competitive than last year. Cam Newton seems to be back healthy and has an improved offensive line, while the Bucs got Bruce Arians and a lethal passing attack. We shouldn’t expect a significant drop-off by the Saints.
On top of that, the Falcons will face the NFC West and the AFC South who produced four playoff teams last year – even though that doesn’t mean a lot. One significant advantage for them is that they won’t play outside a dome until November 17th at Carolina. They only have three games outside, two of them in good weather (SF & TB). They only have one game on the west coast. Some interesting scheduling spots:
- Week 6, @ ARI: The Falcons play their third road game in four weeks with LAR and SEA on deck. Depending on their result at Houston a week prior, this is a spot where Atlanta could be overvalued.
- Week 12, vs. TB: For whatever reason, home teams with a Thursday night game on deck are a losing proposition historically. Since 2010, home favorites at -3 or higher are 44-65-3 (40.4%) against the spread. Falcons will have the Saints on deck.
Two rookies along their offensive line, a head coach who dictates an efficiency-reducing approach and one of the harder schedules – I’m not in love with the Falcons for 2019. In a tough division, a lot of things need to go right for them to grab a playoff spot. They still have Matt Ryan, a good receiving corps and are healthier on defense. However, the circumstances are more complicated than last year. Matt Ryan will probably need to overcome offensive line struggles early in the season as well as the “balanced” rushing attack.
They are priced at -148 on the Under at nine regular season wins – that’s an implied win total of 8.6 which got bet down from 8.8 since early May. This range seems about right. I expect them to compete for a wild card spot rather than a bye week late in December. In the division market at BetOnline with a 10.2% hold, the Falcons are priced at +350 (22.2% break-even). While the Saints are the favorites for a reason, the Falcons seem to be a bit underpriced.
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