Let’s take one more look back at the 2016 Atlanta Falcons, by examining some of the more intriguing stats in relation to their defense.
In the previous entry into this series centering on the Falcons offense, I took a look back at the stats released by Football Outsiders over the summer to see if we can glean some things that weren’t readily apparent. Much of it was fairly known as all of it strongly suggested that the Falcons offense was really good last year. And even in some areas where it wasn’t standout (such as the offensive line), it still managed to be very good.
Now I’ll do the same for the defense and I imagine things will be a bit more mundane. But this should become a good exercise to determine if the Falcons defense was as bad as I often opined it was in 2016. It’s not controversial to say that the Falcons got off to a rocky start defensviely, but seemingly managed to turn things around by year’s end.
The question is will their improvement in the back half of the season lead to their overall rankings in some of these metrics to being better than initially thought. And perhaps some of the areas where they were in fact respectable could potentially be spots that the team could really build off to take that next step in 2017, an improvement that many expect.
Let’s get to the stats. Not as many as in the offensive breakdown, as there is far less emphasis on the individual standouts on defense for Football Outsiders.
Stat No. 1: 2016 Defeats
The Gist: “Defeats” are basically an all-encompassing way of measuring positive plays for individual defenders against the run and pass.
The Falcons Take: Vic Beasley and Deion Jones make appearances here, although I find analysis of the latter far more compelling than the former. Beasley was tied for seventh among edge-rushers with 24 defeats, thanks in large part due to the high number of sacks and forced fumbles he created last year. That shouldn’t be particularly surprising. The NFL’s sack leader should be pretty high in “defeats,” a stat that encompasses tackles for loss, sacks, created turnovers and third-down stops.
Jones on the other hand was 16th among off-ball linebackers with 22 defeats. That isn’t super high but puts him in good company with other middle linebackers from last season like Bobby Wagner (24) and Luke Kuechly (23). Most notably, 14 of Jones’ defeats came against the pass. Only four other linebackers on this group had a higher number of pass defeats, signaling that Jones really shined in coverage, which others have pointed out.
That’s no surprise considering his speed and range is a bit more valuable in space than it is as a “downhill” run defender. Upping those eight run defeats will be a big step for Jones in 2017, as one particularly harsh interpretation of the distribution of this data puts him more on par with really good strong safeties than other top middle linebackers.
Wagner and Kuechly have nearly equal distribution between pass and run defeats, while Jones’ “lopsided” performance looks more akin to the production of safeties like Landon Collins and Malcolm Jenkins.
However Jones is not alone in terms of having an overwhelmingly high number of pass defeats coupled with a relatively low number against the run. And it’s noteworthy that many of them are younger middle/inside linebackers like Eric Kendricks, Jatavis Brown, Ryan Shazier and Jordan Hicks. Every single one of those players were considered “undersized” coming into the league and have entered since 2014.
This perhaps speaks to the observation I made in part one about the increasingly occurrence of teams using three-wide receivers sets or “11” personnel, and how it’s pushing teams towards having smaller, speedier linebackers at the position.
Few of the linebackers that appear atop this ranking would be considered “thumpers” with Wagner, Kuechly, Preston Brown and Sean Lee perhaps being the exceptions. And Wagner, Kuechly and Lee are notable because most consider their coverage abilities to be comparable if not on par with their abilities to defend the run.
So it’s clear at least as far as defeats are concerned, the best linebackers in the league are more like Jones than not. A realization that had I been aware of a year ago, I probably would not have been as down on Jones as I was following his selection.
Seeing how much growth Jones is able to achieve in 2017 will be something to keep an eye on as the year progresses. Should the day arise that Jones is equally capable of stuffing the run as he is defending the pass, that will be a very, very dark day for opposing offenses.
As a postscript, I imagine if more of five forced fumbles that safety Keanu Neal had actually resulted in recoveries, whether he would have made an appearance on this list. Hopefully that is something we’ll see in next year’s data dump about the 2017 season.
Stat No. 2: Defense and Pass Pressure, 2016
The Gist: Measuring which defenses generated the most pressure last year and how much (if at all) their performances benefited from it.
The Falcons Take: The Falcons finished 20th in pressure rate at 26.4 percent, which is slightly below the league average of 27.1 percent.
The Falcons didn’t rank particularly high when it came to measuring their DVOA when they generated pressure, ranking just 24th among the NFL. Without pressure, their defensive DVOA actually ranked better at 14th.
So what does this mean? It doesn’t mean that the Falcons defense didn’t benefit from pressure, it’s just that even with pressure, their overall defensive performance was nothing special by league standards. As FO relates in assessing the value of pressure:
Sacks are often the gold standard of measurement for pressure, but simply hitting a quarterback while he’s in his throwing motion can stall a drive just as well, or even lead to an interception. Pressure brings a lot more value than just sacks. Even ignoring sacks, passers under pressure in 2016 lost roughly 2.0 yards per throw, saw their completion rate drop by 23.5 percentage points, and had their touchdown-to-interception ratio cut in half.
Clearly pressure is very valuable across the league, even made more explicit when you see that every team in league generated a negative DVOA (meaning a negative for the opposing offense, a good thing for a defense) with pressure.
However what’s a bit more interesting is that the Falcons defense fared so relatively well without pressure. I can only really interpret that is indicative of how solid the Falcons secondary play was throughout 2016.
Teams like Denver, Seattle and the New York Giants, all known for the prowess of their secondaries last year and in years past, also fared well without needing pressure by ranking in the top 10. However there were also teams like Philadelphia and Chicago, who both had questionable secondaries, that also ranked highly in that metric. So perhaps good secondary play might not be the best conclusion to draw.
But one that is definitely clearer, despite their below average pass rush based on pressure rate, the Falcons 24th rank unit was much better than their 31st rank group in 2015. The arrow is definitely pointing up and only should continue to do so in 2017 and beyond with the team’s offseason additions up front like Dontari Poe and Takk McKinley.
Stat No. 3: Run Defense By Number of Backs, 2016
The Gist: This stat looks at how defenses fared against offenses based on the number of running backs in the backfield against either one or two backs.
The Falcons Take: The Falcons didn’t see a lot of two-running back sets, fielding the second lowest percentage in the league. That’s the benefit of playing with a lead for most of last season and two backs generally being a lot less advantageous when passing the ball. Not everybody can be Patrick DiMarco or Kyle Juszczyk, and most teams would benefit from subbing out a fullback in favor of a pass-catcher at wide receiver or tight end.
Yet the Falcons were very solid against those “run-heavy” units, allowing the second lowest yards per carry (2.8) and ranking 14th in DVOA efficiency.
However they did not fare as well against one-back-led offenses, ranking 29th in DVOA against. They allowed 4.5 yards per carry, with that difference between two backs being among the largest gaps in the league. When measuring DVOA, that difference was the fourth highest, meaning that teams greatly benefited from attacking the Falcons run defense with just one runner versus two.
There are several ways to interpret this data. First one should consider that generally the Falcons used their nickel defense when teams use just one running back since that usually signals a three-wide receiver set. Obviously there are many teams that will use one back and two tight ends, but teams were three times as likely to deploy multiple wide receivers than tight ends with one-back sets in 2016.
That takes a linebacker off the field in exchange for a cornerback, and thus you typically are stuck with a lighter box to defend the run. It’s especially noteworthy given that the Falcons often deployed Vic Beasley and Dwight Freeney in their nickel fronts, two players that aren’t particularly adept against the run. Basically the Falcons were probably not in the most favorable situations to be as stout against the run based off personnel when they faced single backs.
The other thing that is worth factoring in is that because Falcon opponents so often found themselves playing from behind, it meant that they became a bit more one-dimensional. The Falcons defense expected pass and as previously mentioned, probably geared themselves to defending it. That meant that when teams did decide to run (like on draws, etc.), it probably proved more effective than in situations where a run play would be more readily expected.
But even with those caveats and considerations, it’s somewhat distressing how poor the Falcons run defense was against single backs. If the plan in 2017 is to have free-agent signee Dontari Poe pull more weight in their nickel sub-package, this is an area that should improve.
Stat No. 4: 2016 Play-Action Defense
The Gist: Measures how effective defenses were against play action last season.
The Falcons Take: Unsurprisingly the Falcons saw the second least amount of play-action passing a season ago, with only about 13 percent of passes against them involving such a run fake. That makes perfect sense when the whole goal of play action is to sell run to throw a pass, but you can’t really sell run when you’re down multiple scores as Falcons opponents often found themselves in 2016.
Just as a side stat: only the Patriots defense spent more time playing with two (or more) score leads than the Falcons last year. The Falcons defense found itself in that very advantageous situation for nearly half of 2016 (474 out of 1059 plays). Those are situations where teams overwhelmingly tend to pass the ball, so trying to sell the run first doesn’t make a ton of sense.
Other than that, not too much to glean here. The Falcons ranked slightly below average defensively both when it came to defending the play-action and on “regular” pass plays.
Stat No. 5: 2016 Slot vs. Wide: Defense
The Gist: This looks at the efficiency of NFL defenses against slot receivers versus wide receivers. Also includes data against running backs and tight ends when lined up in the slot or out wide.
Where the Falcons Stood: Interestingly enough, the Falcons ranked 29th in DVOA against slot receivers and second against wide receivers. FO has their own blurb discussing this and I’ll continue after with additional context:
Atlanta is an interesting case at No. 2 in wide DVOA and No. 29 in slot DVOA. Opponents certainly attacked accordingly. Atlanta faced 58 more slot targets than the next closest defense. Desmond Trufant played well (11th in AYPP) before injury ended his season well short of the Super Bowl. Robert Alford was a Super Bowl hero with a pick-six, and could have been a legend if he had come down with another Tom Brady pass in the final minutes. But the Atlanta corner with the best ASR overall and out wide was actually 2015 second-round pick Jalen Collins (ranked 32nd), who missed eight games. The Falcons should have an improved secondary with Collins and Trufant returning at full health.
Not surprisingly, the Falcons outside corners were really good in 2016. Trufant and Alford form one of the league’s premier starting duos, and despite the fact that Trufant missed half the season with an injury, the Falcons got more than capable production in his stead from Jalen Collins.
The main takeaway here is that opponents understandably adjusted to the quality of the outside corners by attacking the inside guys and mostly benefited from it. For much of the season, Brian Poole played in the slot, with Alford dabbling at times depending on the matchup. Poole didn’t exactly light the world on fire as rookie, at least according to these numbers. Other sites might suggest otherwise, although those metrics could also be factoring in Poole’s play against the run and positive impact as a blitzer.
I don’t think it’s any shocking revelation that the Falcons probably would be better off with the trio of Trufant, Alford and Collins manning the position in 2017. Thus making it a bit of a concern given recent reports/rumors that Collins has found his way back into the doghouse.
But that could also be interpreted as Poole making serious strides to improve upon his game since he was essentially thrown to the wolves a year ago.
Similar to the offense, there’s nothing too earth-shattering upon this review of last year’s Falcons defense. Some of the stats indicate the unit struggled in areas, but stood out in others.
Most of the positives rests on individual performances and it’s certainly very promising that many of them came from the team’s youth rather than tried and true veterans. It only underlines the point that the arrow should be pointing up for the Falcons.
Their pass rush, while by no means a great unit in comparison to others around the league, showed significant growth a year ago and hopes to continue to do so.
The team’s secondary is arguably their greatest strength, although getting more consistent play against slot receivers will be the next step for them. Some of the success of that unit is owed to assistant coach Marquand Manuel, who will take over as the team’s defensive coordinator in 2017. They hope that Manuel can work similar wonders for the unit as a whole as he’s done for the secondary the past two years.
Clearly the Falcons defense has the capacity to take another leap in 2017 and it seems only a matter of time until they do.