Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – September 26, 2016

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsJulio Jones

The Atlanta Falcons are dealing with another potential injury to Julio Jones this week as they square off against the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football later tonight. It raises concerns about their superstar’s durability and the viability of the offense when he’s nicked up.

This has been a subject I’ve written about quite a bit over the past few years due to my belief that the Falcons have been essentially been a “one-man” team as too often their fate is determined by the health and performance of Jones.

This week he’s dealing with a calf injury, which he assures is different than the ankle injury that seemed to slow him down the first two weeks of the season. Jones is expected to play against the Saints, but has been a bit more limited in practice this past week than previous ones when he was dealing with just the bum ankle. It’s a potential red flag worth monitoring moving forward.

After the season-opening loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it appeared that Jones was being used mostly as a decoy due to his health limitations. Jones received only two targets in the first half of that game, the lowest he had ever been targeted in a first half in nearly two full seasons’ worth of games. Whatever limitations Jones suffered seemed to have a negative effect on the Falcons ability to score enough points in that game to keep pace with the Bucs.

The team got Jones more involved in last Sunday’s win over the Oakland Raiders. He led the team with 106 yards receiving. It was also telling that when push came to shove, it was Jones that seemingly lifted the Falcons over the Raiders in what had been up until that point a closely contested game.

After a fourth-quarter drive from the Raiders that tied the game 21-21, Jones stepped up on the ensuing series with a big 48-yard play that put the Falcons in scoring position to quickly push their lead to 28-21 upon a Justin Hardy touchdown. Jones also had a 20-yard reception on the following series that helped set up another score from Tevin Coleman.

One can’t help but think of all the times Jones stepped up in big ways to help lift the Falcons over several opponents in recent years. There just haven’t been very many wins for the team recently that didn’t feature Jones doing the bulk of the heavy lifting when it came to someone stepping up to make a critical play at the appropriate time.

And of course a major concern entering tonight’s contest against the Saints is whether his calf injury is going to keep him from doing that.

Jones will have the benefit of facing a weak Saints secondary that is missing both of its starting cornerbacks in Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams due to injury. However that is by no means a guarantee that Jones will dominate this game.

This is a scenario that Jones and the Falcons have faced before, where Jones was in a prime position to feast on an injury-depleted secondary, but injuries prevented him from taking over the game in the way that many envisioned.

The first instance came against the Washington Redskins last season in the Falcons’ Week Five overtime win.

That Redskins team was without starting corners Chris Culliver and DeAngelo Hall that week, putting the onus on Bashaud Breeland and Will Blackmon to try and handle Jones. However that was also one of the first weeks that Jones was dealing with the toe and hamstring injuries that would plague him for much of the “second quadrant” in 2015.

Jones wound up having one of his quieter performances of the 2015 season against the Redskins, catching five passes for 67 yards, both of which were his third-lowest totals of that season.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan failed to complete a pass to Jones on his first four passes intended his way against Washington, one of which resulting in an interception. However Jones came up big on what was to be a go-ahead drive in the final minutes of the fourth quarter with a pair of receptions for 28 yards, representing half of the team’s four first downs they engineered on a 10-play, 80-yard drive to push their lead 19-16 with 30 seconds left to go.

The Redskins wound up tying the game with a field goal to send it into overtime, but the Falcons prevailed thanks to a pick-six by cornerback Robert Alford.

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Devonta Freeman was at his best against the Washington Redskins last season

Helping the Falcons compensate for Jones’ limited effectiveness early in that Redskins game were the performances of running back Devonta Freeman and tight end Jacob Tamme. Freeman rushed for 153 yards on the ground and added 44 in the air for a career-high of 197 yards from scrimmage. While Tamme added eight catches for 94 yards, the latter of which was up until that point the second-highest total of his eight-year career.

Short of two career games from Freeman and Tamme, it’s tough to figure if the Falcons offense survives that Redskins game with Jones nicked up the way he was.

The Falcons got no such performances from their supporting cast in the second game where Jones was nicked up against a weakened secondary, which came against the San Francisco 49ers a month later in 2015.

The 49ers were forced to start Dontae Johnson and Marcus Cromartie as replacements for injured starters Tramaine Brock and Kenneth Acker.

Johnson was a second-year player that had just logged 67 defensive snaps in 2015 heading into their Week Nine matchup against the Falcons. Cromartie had just been elevated from the practice squad that week to fill in as an injury replacement.

On paper Jones dominated the game with a team-leading 10 catches for 137 yards. But most importantly the 49ers’ young corners were successful in keeping Jones out of the end zone.

Like in the Redskins game, the Falcons had an opportunity late to march down the field and get points and targeted Jones multiple times on that drive. But both Cromartie and Johnson had tight coverage on the veteran receiver. Jones failed to move the chains with just two catches for 11 yards on four targets on that final possession.

Johnson broke up a fade to Jones in the end zone on 3rd-and-goal that could’ve given the Falcons a lead. Instead two plays later, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn stupidly opted to kick a field goal from the 49ers’ one-yard line instead of going for it on fourth down with three minutes left in the game. The 49ers were able to salt away the rest of the game and get the 17-16 victory.

But as noted earlier, nobody else on the offense stepped up to help out Jones. Freeman had his worst game of the season, rushing for just 12 yards on 12 carries. He did add 67 yards and a touchdown as a receiver but even factoring in total yards, it was still one of his least productive games of 2015 after he gained the starting spot in Week Three.

Tamme on the other hand had six catches for 61 yards. By no means a poor performance, but certainly not enough to compensate for the lack of a running game.

What this all means for the Falcons tonight against the Saints is that if Jones’ calf injury winds up slowing him down, someone else better step up in a major way or else the Falcons offense could easily falter.

Regardless of whether Jones has a big performance against backup Saints cornerbacks or not, this game could become a good litmus test for how much the Falcons have progressed, if at all, away from being a one-man team.

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Mohamed Sanu

After all, this is the type of game which could help justify why the Falcons paid $32 million to Mohamed Sanu this offseason. After all just like Jones, he too will be squaring off against a backup Saints cornerback. This should be the type of game that the Falcons don’t need Jones to do the heavy lifting, since Sanu should also have a favorable matchup that should allow him to lighten the star receiver’s load.

The issue the Falcons face is that their offense is predicated on an effective running game. No one should underestimate how instrumental the team’s 139 total rushing yards on 29 carries had an effect on the team’s 35-point output last week against the Raiders.

In games in which the Falcons have rushed for 100 or more yards as a team under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, they sport a 6-4 record. In games in which they do not eclipse the century mark, they are 3-5. Extrapolated over a 16-game sample, that’s basically the difference between 9.6 and six wins, respectively. One of those represents a potential playoff team while the other is likely looking at a top 10 draft selection.

But even more importantly than the yards gained is the total rushing attempts. The team rushing stat that correlates the most with winning games is rush attempts, not yards. That is because teams are far likelier to run the ball when they hold leads late in games. And teams that hold leads late in games are more likely to win.

In 2015, the average NFL team ran the ball on roughly 41 percent of plays. In the first halves of games even when teams had leads of seven or more points, their tendency to run barely changed with only 42 percent of offensive plays being runs. However in the second halves of the games with a similar seven-point margin or more, teams suddenly ran the ball just shy of 60 percent of the time.

Contrast that to when teams got behind in games: when down seven or more points in the first half of a game in 2015, NFL teams collectively ran the ball just shy of 39 percent of the time. Once again an indicator that team’s didn’t modify their play-calling very much early in games. However in the second half when down seven or more points, teams ran the ball just 27 percent of the time.

The magic number for the Falcons appears to be around 28 combined rush attempts. In games in which they have hit 29 or more total rushing attempts, they are 8-0 under Shanahan. In games in which they only hit 27 or fewer rushing attempts, the team is 1-9.

Even though the notion of a “shootout” appears enticing given the injuries in the Saints secondary, the reality may be that a game in which the Falcons often find themselves dropping back and throwing to keep pace with the Saints offense is not conducive to their ability to win the game. Balance is critical for the success of the Falcons under Shanahan.

Of course a shootout that involves getting the ball to Jones as much as possible probably works due to a history that shows that Jones’ big games often result in Falcon wins. But given his calf injury that may not be quite as possible as one would hope.

So yet again, tonight’s game is ideally one in which the Falcons won’t have to rely on Jones, allowing him to rest up somewhat for an upcoming series of matchups against the Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks over the next three weeks. Given the overall quality of those opposing defenses, those are three games where the Falcons are certainly going to need Jones to do much of the heavy lifting if the Falcons want to win.

The Falcons aren’t going to find an easier matchup for their supporting cast to step up against to lighten Jones’ load than tonight’s Saints matchup. If players like Freeman, Tamme, Sanu, Tevin Coleman, Justin Hardy, Austin Hooper, Aldrick Robinson and Taylor Gabriel cannot step up to take pressure off Jones against a Saints secondary without its starting cornerbacks, then there’s really no reason to think they ever reliably will when they face other teams’ regulars.

In essence this game needs to be much more comparable to last year’s Redskins matchup than last year’s 49ers one with the rest of the offense’s supporting cast earning their paychecks. If the Falcons are to move beyond being a “one-man” team, then they’ll be hard-pressed to find a better opportunity than tonight’s underneath the bright, primetime lights in New Orleans.

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