The 2015 Atlanta Falcons: Anatomy of a Free Fall

Monday November 23rd, 2015

After falling at home to the mediocre (and Hasselbeck-led) Colts, the Falcons find themselves losers of four of five since starting the season 5-0. Considering whom their previous losses came against (the 3-7 49ers, 5-5 Buccaneers and 4-6 Saints), and whom they defeated for their lone victory during that stretch (the 2-8 Titans, by a field goal, with Zach Mettenberger under center), a natural assumption that is this Falcons team, which many expected to finish below .500 as it rebuilds on defense under new coach Dan Quinn, is indeed panning out to meet expectations.

But Falcons fans shouldn’t fret. On film, the 1-4, Stage 2 Falcons haven’t looked significantly different from the Stage 1 Falcons who started 5-0. And, OK, maybe the Stage 1 Falcons were not quite as good as their record indicated, but those five wins are a more accurate portrayal of the 2015 Falcons than the club’s four losses. The biggest difference between Stage 1 and 2 has been the dreaded turnover.

Matt Ryan had two particularly costly interceptions Sunday against the Colts. The first was in the end zone after safety Clifton Geathers had an outstanding reaction to a Roddy White in-breaking route. Geathers tipped the pass, and safety Dwight Lowery caught the flutter ball. Good defense. The second interception, however, was a combination of good defense and bad offense. With the Falcons backed up near their own goal line, Ryan executed a play-action fake. Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson reacted to the run look but quickly retreated back into shallow coverage, playing Atlanta’s tendencies to run slant routes off of play-action. Ryan never accounted for the veteran linebacker, whose easy pick-six was the game’s turning point.

Two weeks before, in the loss at San Francisco, the Falcons had no turnovers, but they couldn’t run the ball. Devonta Freeman, the league’s leading rusher coming into that contest, was held to 12 yards on 12 carries. Chalk it up to the “It Happens” phenomenon; the 49ers’ three-man defensive line was tremendous that day, and the Falcons as a team have averaged 123.1 yards rushing in all their other contests. Assuming Freeman’s concussion doesn’t sideline him long-term, there’s nothing to worry about with the ground game, even after a subpar performance against the Colts. (Like the Niners, the Colts play a 3-4 defense, but all of Atlanta’s remaining opponents run a 4-3.)

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And in Atlanta’s other two losses—home to Tampa Bay and at New Orleans—turnovers decided the outcome. Against Tampa, the Falcons lost three fumbles, two in scoring position. They lost a pair of fumbles in scoring position against the Saints, as well. Some of the problems were tied to bad exchanges, QB-center or QB-running back.

Every coach hates losing fumbles. Yes, you lose your chance to score while giving your opponent getting an additional chance to do so, and you put yourself on the wrong end of a field position swing. But fumbles are rarely indicative of larger problems. As Football Outsiders has tracked over the years, fumbles are notoriously fickle, their recovery being almost a pure 50/50 proposition.

Interceptions are a somewhat different story. The two against Indy were cases of the defense playing well (though Ryan, a vested veteran, would probably tell you he should have read the field a little clearer). But picks were a problem in the Stage 2 Falcons’ lone victory, at Tennessee, which is why the score was only 10-7. Of course, the same could be said on the Titans’ end, too; if not for Mettenberger’s interceptions, in the first half and on the final drive, you’d probably be reading about a winless Stage 2 Falcons club.

Both of Ryan’s interceptions at Tennessee stemmed from the Falcons getting out-schemed and therefore out-executed. On one of them, outside linebacker David Bass was able to snag a screen pass because there was no other receiver or deception element to threaten his area. On the other, the Titans had a great feel for the Falcons’ red zone play-action designs and stifled Ryan’s targets, leading to a deflected pass that was picked off. But remember, neither of these turnovers contributed to a Falcons loss. Aside from yesterday, Ryan’s only other pick during his team’s five-game slump was to Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander. That one was, however, a perplexing forced ball into crowded zone coverage.

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The greater point is that the Falcons have beaten themselves with random fumbles and a few interceptions, of which only one was a truly bad offensive play. Ryan, cerebral as he is, has always had a slight tendency to take the bait and make a foolish throw or two into disguised or tight coverages. But interceptions have never been a major bugaboo. So unless you believe this will change in the final six games of Ryan’s eighth NFL season, there’s little reason to believe turnovers will continue to plague Atlanta.

Defensively, the Stage 2 Falcons are actually allowing just 20.4 points per game—two fewer points than the Stage 1 Falcons gave up. They’ve forced just two fewer meaningful turnovers (meaningful being anything that wasn’t in garbage time). Surely, Dan Quinn would like to see more firepower from his pass rush—particularly first-round rookie end Vic Beasley, who right now is an explosive athlete with almost no sense for how to play—but the rest of his defense, particularly corner Desmond Trufant and the secondary, has been stellar if not spectacular. Quinn has created an array of personnel packages, allowing a unit that got lighter and faster over the offseason to stay fresh for all four quarters.

Most likely, Atlanta’s fate hinges on how well its offense functions. Aside from having limitations at wide receiver opposite Julio Jones (BREAKING: Leonard Hankerson just dropped another pass… and Roddy White is still missing), the Falcons are a difficult offense to play against. Coordinator Kyle Shanahan has built a shrewd passing attack out of run personnel and formations, making this one of the most lethal and unpredictable play-action teams in the league. Ryan has maintained the mobility he discovered a year ago, lending that much more dimension to Shanahan’s moving pockets and zone-run concepts.

Combine the Stage 1 Falcons with the Stage 2 Falcons and what you’ll likely get is a Stage 3 Falcons club that finishes 10-6 and is a dangerous Wild-Card foe.

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