There’s quite a lot to take away from the Atlanta Falcons’ 2015 regular-season-opening win over the Philadelphia Eagles by a score of 26-24.
It was a nail-biter down to the end, but that’s business as usual in a parity-driven NFL where outcomes often come down to one or two possessions. The first week of the 2015 season featured nine games decided by one score (eight points) or less.
Of course the Falcons-Eagles was one of the opening weekend’s closest-contested games with safety Ricardo Allen’s last-minute interception sealing the win for the Falcons.
It was a fortuitous play for the second-year player that was actually playing in his first regular-season game. Allen, a fifth-round pick of the Falcons a year ago, spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad before being called up to the 53-man roster for the final two games of 2014. He was inactive in both contests, but his arrival in the 2015 season opener is exemplary of one of many positive changes that new head coach Dan Quinn wishes to portend in Atlanta.
Allen failed to make the roster as a rookie largely due to a lack of foresight by the previous regime. As mentioned before, the Falcons were seemingly collecting undersized corners last offseason in a league seeing wide receivers continue to increase in size. Allen fell by the wayside with veterans like Robert McClain, Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas ahead of them on the depth chart.
The previous regime “quadruple-dipped” at the position, hoping that by bringing in four 5’9″ corners that one would emerge via competition as a capable slot corner. In the end Wilson emerged as that option, but it meant that a player like Allen was completely marginalized.
Enter Quinn and Allen has moved to a brand new position of free safety. None of the aforementioned corners remain with the team as Quinn’s new defensive scheme follows the trend of the rest of the league by calling for more size at the position. Based off their respective pre-draft pro day measurements, the five corners on the Falcons’ roster today: Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Phillip Adams, Jalen Collins and Dezmen Southward average a size of 5’11 5/8″. If you add practice-squad corner Akeem King and his 6’1 1/2″-frame to the mix, it pushes the positional average up to almost exactly 6-feet even.
A year ago the Falcons six corners, including Allen, averaged a stature of 5’9 3/4″. Quinn has essentially adding 2 1/4″ to the size of the cornerback position to better mesh with the changing times in the league.
It’s not the only update that the Falcons have received over the past 12 months with Quinn running things, with the others also being on display against the Eagles.
Falcons Won the Battle of Big Plays Versus Eagles
One of the keys to beating the Eagles in the season opener was the Falcons winning the “big play differential.” They did exactly that, earning six plays of 20 or more yards to the Eagles’ four.
Five of those plays came in the air and one on the ground. All six of those plays came on separate drives, leading to five of the Falcons’ six scores and accounting for 23 of the team’s 26 points scored against the Eagles. Their sixth score came on a drive that began off a botched 31-yard punt by Eagles punter Donnie Jones, gifting the Falcons good field position inside Eagles territory.
I’ve previously posted the stats indicating how much the chances of the Falcons scoring increase on drives that include big plays of 20 or more yards. This Eagles game was no different.
The Falcons had a dozen possessions over the course of the game, not counting the final one in which they were in “victory” formation. On the six that included big plays they scored 23 points, an average of nearly four points per drive. On the six drives that did not include a big play, they scored just three points, just half a point per drive.
This phenomenon is not unique to the Falcons as the Eagles also benefited from their own explosive plays. They finished the game with four such plays on three separate drives. Those three drives each led to points, accounting for 17 of the team’s 24-point total. On their 10 other possessions, the Eagles scored seven points. Those points came off a late-second quarter interception which is essentially just another big play.
Quinn and his staff are no strangers to big plays. It’s why offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan stressed the deep ball in his first press conference this offseason. Quinn comes from Seattle, a team that was among the league leaders over the past several seasons in generating chunk yardage.
Roddy White Shines in Play-Action Offense
What is also notable about the big plays were how many went towards veteran receiver Roddy White. White led the team with three 20-plus-yard pass catches, all coming in the first half of the game. What’s even more notable is that all three came off play-action fakes from quarterback Matt Ryan to find an open White running over the middle of the field.
That is of course notable because multiple times over the past few months I’ve mentioned how important the play-action passing game was going to be to the Falcons’ offense this year. While the final tally isn’t quite in as of this writing, Ryan’s success working off play action was apparent through roughly the first quarter-and-a-half of play.
In the case of White, play action is so beneficial to him given that he’s not the player he once was. There was a time not that long ago where a receiver of White’s caliber could simply line up and beat corners with relative ease to make such big plays on his own. But now he needs a little help given he doesn’t separate from coverage quite as well as once did.
With the safety attention that wide receiver Julio Jones draws, coupled with the linebackers needing to key on the run fakes in the backfield, it opens up wide swaths in the middle of the field for a savvy veteran like White to settle into and make the drive-enhancing big plays that he made so readily against the Eagles.
Jones Continues Primetime Dominance
Speaking of Jones, he had another dominant primetime performance. In his last five primetime matchups dating back to the beginning of 2013, he has hauled in a combined total of 43 catches for 768 yards (17.9 avg) and five touchdowns.
If extrapolated to a full 16-game season, Jones would put up roughly 138 catches for 2,458 yards and 16 touchdowns. It should be noted the NFL single-season records are 143 catches and 1,964 receiving yards and only 10 players in NFL history have ever had more than 16 receiving touchdowns in a single season.
Obviously Jones has been heavily featured in those last five primetime games. He’s been targeted a total of 63 times, accounting for 32 percent of Matt Ryan’s pass attempts in those games. Jones’ receptions were also 31 percent of Ryan’s completions and his yards were 45 percent of Ryan’s total. 38 percent of Ryan’s touchdown passes went to Jones in those five games.
Those numbers are notable given that in the other 16 games that Jones has played in since 2013 that haven’t been in front of a national television audience, he’s accounted for roughly 26 percent of Ryan’s targets and receptions and 33 percent of yards. He still managed to represent 40 percent of Ryan’s touchdowns in those non-primetime games however.
It all shows that when the lights are on, Jones becomes the focus of the Falcons offense and rightly so when you put up numbers like he has.
Against the Eagles, the Falcons fed Jones early and often with him reeling in eight catches for 97 yards in the first half. Seemingly an undisclosed injury slowed him up at some point during the game as he was often seen subbing in and out of the game in the second half. He was held to just one second-half catch, but he certainly made it count with a 44-yard snag on a streak that ultimately led to kicker Matt Bryant’s game-winning field goal with six minutes to go in the game.
Fast Start Put Eagles on Defensive
That ability to start fast was something that was too often sorely missing from the Falcons in recent years under former head coach Mike Smith and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
The fast start put the Eagles on their heels and forced them to have to adjust to the Falcons rather than vice versa. While most focus on the Eagles’ up-tempo spread passing attack, it’s really the running game that is instrumental to the Eagles offense.
Since Chip Kelly took over as head coach of that team in 2013, the Eagles have run the ball 44.7 percent of their offensive plays, good for seventh-most in the NFL in that span. However in Week One, the Eagles were only able to run it on just 23.5 percent of their 68 offensive plays. Essentially the Falcons made their offense nearly half as effective.
While the Falcons certainly owe quite a bit to their offense’s ability to move the ball and put up points early in the game, credit must be given to the team’s defense for clamping down on the Eagles during the first half.
Falcons Defense On the Rise Under Quinn
The Falcons’ defense forced three three-and-outs, one four-and-out and a turnover during the first half of the game on eight Eagles possessions. Prior to the Eagles opting to run out the first-half clock on their eighth possession, the Falcons’ had completely shut down their rushing attack. The Eagles attempted just five rushing attempts on their first seven possessions with a success rate of just 20 percent while totaling minus-four yards.
The Eagles eventually found their way on the ground in the second half, posting a success rate of 67 percent and totaling 55 yards on nine second-half carries. But that was likely due to the fact that the Falcons were mostly keying on the pass as the Eagles tried to climb back into the game.
Plus when it really mattered the Falcons’ run defense was stout, as linebacker Paul Worrilow shot through a hole to hit Eagles running back Ryan Mathews on a 3rd-and-1 play for a loss. That forced the Eagles to attempt a long 44-yard field goal with three minutes left in the game, which kicker Cody Parkey missed and allowed the Falcons to retain their lead and eventually win.
Like Allen, Worrilow is another player that hopes to transform under Quinn’s guidance as the third-year middle linebacker is coming off a very disappointing 2014 campaign.
But even more impressive than the Falcons’ run defense was their pass rush. While they failed to sack Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford, the unit did manage to hit him eight times. It’s been an extremely rare occurrence to see a Falcons defensive unit provide such pressure on opposing quarterbacks. That’s probably the most stark change that Falcon fans hope to see under Quinn as it has been a long time coming since the team could reliably get pressure with just four pass-rushers.
While the 2015 season is far from over, the Falcons’ season-opening win showed fans quite a few things that they hope to continue seeing as the rest of the year wears on. “Fast and physical” is the oft-used mantra of Quinn’s and the identity he wishes to bring to his new team.
If “fast” can be likened to explosive on offense and “physical” being stout on defense, then the Quinn-led Falcons are well on their way to fulfilling those wishes.