Can Falcons Overcome Offensive Dropoff With Defensive Improvement in 2017?

Jan 22, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) speaks with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan after the game against the Green Bay Packers in the 2017 NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome. Atlanta defeated Green Bay 44-21. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY SportsFalcons QB Matt Ryan (left) and former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan

There is no denying that the Atlanta Falcons offense in 2016 was one of the most prolific in NFL history.

The 540 points the team scored in the regular season was tied for the eighth most in league history, matching the total of the 2000 St. Louis Rams, an offense nicknamed the “Greatest Show on Turf.”

Including their postseason totals, pushes last year’s Falcons offense to 648 points, the third-highest ever, blowing the doors off all but a few Super Bowl teams and putting them one touchdown shy of a 2007 New England Patriots team that nearly achieved a perfect season.

So 2016 truly was a historic season for Atlanta offensively, which is why expectations for a repeat performance in 2017 may be considered a bit lofty. One can expect a regression towards the mean.

History Says Falcons Will Experience Significant Dropoff

There’s little doubt that the evolution of passing throughout pro football’s history has led to increased scoring, particularly in the modern era now that it is the 21st century. Of the 20 teams that have scored 500 or more points during an NFL regular season, 13 of them have accomplished that feat since the year 2000. Meaning that on average there is nearly one team per season that puts up huge numbers over the past 17 years.

Which suggests that it’s certainly possible that some team’s offense will manage to be prolific in 2017, and the Falcons do have as good a chance as any to become that unit.

500+ Point Offenses (Since 2000)

List of Teams that scored 500 or more points since the 2000 season. Includes the point totals for the following season and the percentage of increase or defense
TeamYearPoints ScoredNext Yr's PointsInc/DecPct. Inc/Dec

However looking at all the dozen other teams since 2000 that have scored 500 or more points in a regular season, on average they have scored about 96 less points the following year. That represents an average dropoff of 17.8 percent.

For the 2017 Falcons, a similar rate of dropoff would lead to about 96 less points this upcoming season, nearly one touchdown less per game. That’d put them at 444 total points for the season.

While a touchdown may not seem that “significant” to some, an average of seven points if often what separates the league’s best offenses from its worst. The separation between the Dallas Cowboys, the fifth-ranked scoring offense in 2016, and Cincinnati Bengals, who ranked 24th, was “just” 96 points.

If the cutoff is only looking at teams that matched or exceeded last season’s point total of 540, then the average dropoff  equaled roughly 111 points or 19.4 percent. That would lead to roughly 105 less points for the Falcons in 2017 for a point total of about 435.

The only teams that have been successfully able to repeat consecutive 500-plus point seasons in this century were the 2000-01 Rams and 2010-11 Patriots. Had 1999 also been included in the data set, the Rams would have had a remarkable “three-peat.”

However notably the Rams and Patriots were also the two teams that saw this biggest dropoff from one year to the next thanks to mostly to quarterback injuries.

The 2001 Rams fell off 37.2 percent in 2002 thanks to quarterback Kurt Warner’s broken finger limiting him early in the season. That gave way to backup Marc Bulger that year and effectively ended Warner’s “Cinderella” stint in St. Louis. Bulger remained the Rams’ primary passer through 2009, roughly around the same time that Warner was able to resurrect his career as a top quarterback in the league thanks to his 2008 reemergence with the Arizona Cardinals.

The 2007 Patriots saw the second largest dropoff in a subsequent season, with their regular-season point total falling off 30.4 percent thanks to a season-ending knee injury suffered by Tom Brady in the 2008 season opener. Reserve Matt Cassel did a surprisingly good job helping the Patriots finish the year with a 10-6 record with the league’s eighth-best offense.

Last year’s Carolina Panthers would be the third-biggest disappointment, with their 2015 scoring output falling off by 26.2 percent. Although starting quarterback Cam Newton only missed one game due to a concussion he suffered against Atlanta, it was not his first run of hard hits to the head last season, possibly negatively affecting his play throughout the year.

The biggest unknown factor in this equation is how big a loss is offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who is now the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. He will be replaced by former University of Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian.

Losing Shanahan Puts Falcons Offense in Uncharted Waters

Of the 12 other teams that have scored 500 or more points since 2000, only three lost their offensive coordinator in subsequent years.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

New Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian

The best-case scenario in losing a play-caller probably is the 2011-12 Patriots. They went from Bill O’Brien to Josh McDaniels and were the only team in the sample to see actual improvement in their scouting output from one to the next. But it’s difficult to expect that Sarkisian can pull off the same. McDaniels was the Patriots’ play-caller from 2006 to 2008, in charge of that exceptional 2007 offense and so was not an unknown commodity. He knew the players, team and system. If anything, it was a reversion to previously experienced success, making it far less applicable to the current Falcons situation.

Another scenario was experienced by the 2011-12 Green Bay Packers, who lost offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to the Miami Dolphins and replaced him with quarterbacks coach Tom Clements. However their circumstances are also unique since head coach Mike McCarthy was (and remains) in charge of calling plays for the Packers. Philbin’s role with the team had more to do with weekly preparation rather than game-day management. Not to mention, Clements had served as the Packers quarterbacks coach for six seasons before receiving his promotion, so he was well-versed in the system.

The third example is the quirky situation experienced by the 2011-12 New Orleans Saints. Head coach Sean Payton similarly called plays for the Saints throughout much of his early tenure in the Big Easy, but thanks to a year-long suspension stemming from “Bountygate” was forced to cede those responsibilities to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael in 2012. However Carmichael wasn’t completely inexperienced in that capacity, having taken over play-calling for an injured Payton in Week Six of the 2011 season and guiding that team to their 547-point output the rest of the season.

The bottom line is that the Falcons are breaking new ground since Sarkisian has zero experience calling plays at the pro level. Sarkisian’s only experience coaching at this level was a lone year as the Oakland Raiders’ quarterback coach under Norv Turner in 2004.

However some continuity is expected to be maintained with Sarkisian adopting Shanahan’s West-Coast system. Sarkisian is experienced running a similar offense under head coach Pete Carroll during their shared days at the University of Southern California from 2007 to 2008. It was that shared connection to Carroll that prompted Falcons head coach Dan Quinn to tap Sarkisian.

Yet Sarkisian won’t get the benefit of too much continuity in the coaching staff  since he will oversee a group that will have new quarterbacks and running backs coaches, Bush Hamdan and Keith Carter, respectively, as well as three new offensive assistants: Dave Brock, Charlie Weis Jr. and Kyle Flood. That should allow Sarkisian to put his own stamp on how the offense is run given that so many of the new assistants are replacing ones that were long associated with Shanahan or his father, Mike.

However this likely means there will be somewhat of a learning curve for Sarkisian and the rest of the offensive staff, which isn’t exactly conducive to maintaining the status quo of last year’s offensive production.

But let’s just assume for a second that Sarkisian is successfully able to keep the 2017 Falcons on par with the norm over the years and there is roughly a 19.4 percent dropoff in point total this season, leading to 435 points.

Patriots Illustrate What 2017 Falcons Could Look Like

That shouldn’t be considered poor by any measure as most years that would be still be considered among the league’s best. In fact, going back the past decade, 435 points would generally rank as the fourth or fifth highest total in most NFL regular seasons.

435 Points Rankings (2007-16)

Where an offense that scored 435 points would have ranked each year in the NFL.
20104th (tied)
20074th (tied)
Average Rank4.8

So despite an expected dropoff, the Falcons should still be poised to have one of the league’s best offenses in the league this upcoming season.

But what is the difference between what is typically a fourth or fifth best offense versus what the Falcons had a year ago?

A team that has consistently produced high-ranking offenses in recent years has been the Patriots, who have finished fourth or higher in points scored in each of the past seven seasons dating back to 2010.

On average the Patriots have scored 486.6 points per year, far better than 435 points the data suggests the Falcons might score in 2017. Yet looking at the Patriots offense over the past seven years is still informative in what a “typical” high-level offense looks like.

They’ve maintained continuity at quarterback (besides 2008) with Brady, as well as with head coach Bill Belichick, solid play up front and have had a relatively steady core of receivers including Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman over that span. Even though their success is anything but “typical” relative to most NFL teams, their yearly continuity at the top makes them a prototype to measure what a reliably consistent offense can do from season to season.

After all most hope and/or expect that the heights experienced by the Falcons a year ago will continue to be the norm in ensuing years, making the Patriots’ stability something worth impersonating.

Going back through each of their past seven seasons, I broke down their scoring outputs into seven tiers based on weekly point totals. The highest tier was the “40 burger”, looking at the total number of both regular and postseason games in which they scored 40 or more points. The next five tiers were based on four-point intervals (36 to 39 points, 32 to 35 points, 28 to 31 points, etc.) with the lowest tier being games in which they scored 19 points or less. Perhaps not the most scientific breakdown, but relatively simple.

Here is the data for the 2010-16 Patriots:

Patriots Games By Points Scored (2010-16)

Number of Games Each Year Sorted by Point Totals.
Points Scored2010201120122013201420152016Average
40 or more33636223.6
19 or less22234222.4
Offensive Rank1st3rd1st3rd4th3rd3rd2.6

Now look at a graph that shows those average for the Patriots over that seven-year span compared to what the Falcons achieved in 2016:

Clearly the data shows that the 2016 Falcons were far more prone to putting up the highest tiers of point totals with nine games in which they scored 36 or more points. That is nearly double what the Patriots averaged over the past seven seasons in those two tiers (5.3 games per year).

Notably the Patriots offenses of the past seven years averaged 7.3 games in the three lowest tiers (27 points or below), while the Falcons only experienced four such games like that a year ago.

A simple conclusion is if the 2017 Falcons offense is as “typical” a potent offense as the Patriots have been in recent years, then they should expect to swap out a handful of “40 burgers” for a couple of lower-scoring affairs.

That’s notable because the Falcons were infamously unable to win games a year ago in which they were unable to broach 31 or more points. In games in which the team hit that 31-point benchmark, they sported a perfect 12-0 record. In all their remaining games that saw the offense score 30 or less points, they managed just a 1-5 mark.

Winning a high percentage of games in which a team scores 31 or more points is far from abnormal, with the league as a whole winning about 87 percent of those games combined over the past seven years.

In fact the Falcons pace the league in such games during that span, with their lone loss being the ridiculous Julio Jones highlight reel that came against the Packers in 2014. The Patriots, notably, have only lost two such games in that same seven-year span.

However unlike the Falcons, the Patriots have been significantly better at winning lower-scoring affairs, sporting the league’s best winning percentage in games where 30 or less points are scored. The Patriots have won a league-high 61 percent of those games, while the Falcons barely notch above the league average of 39 percent at 40 percent.

It’s clear that the biggest difference is that the Patriots defense has allowed them to remain very competitive even when their offensive output isn’t prolific, something the Falcons certainly struggled to do a year ago.

Thus why the biggest concern facing the Falcons entering 2017 has less to do with their expected dropoff in offensive production, but whether the defense has made strides to reverse last year’s losing nearly any time an opponent was able to slow down said offense a hair.

Is Falcons Defense Poised to Fill Offensive Void in 2017?

As the above data strongly suggests, there should be at least a handful more games this year where the Falcons offense won’t be able to light up the scoreboard. The Patriots’ numbers suggest at least three more games are due this year where the Falcons fail to eclipse 28 points.

If that had occurred a year ago, the Falcons could have easily finished the year 8-8 instead of 11-5. Thus the biggest key to the team’s continued success in 2017 is whether or not the defense is better suited to win those types of games.

The Patriots sported a 6-1 record during the regular season in games in which they failed to score more than 27 points. But a big part of their success was the stinginess of their defense, allowing an average of 16.3 points in those seven games and winning the turnover battle with five more takeaways than giveaways.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

New defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel talks with players on sideline

So in a sense the pressure facing the Falcons in 2017 shifts from offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to newly promoted defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and the investments the Falcons made in the offseason on that side of the ball.

The bulk of the offseason focus was on upgrading the front seven with their two biggest free-agent signings being defensive linemen Dontari Poe and Jack Crawford, while the Falcons’ first two 2017 draft picks were defensive end Takk McKinley and linebacker Duke Riley.

The front was arguably the weakest area of the team throughout 2016 and the Falcons brass seem to agree considering their offseason investments.

But not only should the team’s offseason pickups help enhance their front, the Falcons are also banking heavily on the development of returning players, particularly those that they have drafted in recent years.

2015 draft picks Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett are expected to headline the defensive line alongside Poe. Beasley is coming off a 15.5-sack season, which could be difficult to improve upon. But his sack total is somewhat misleading since he was able to pad his stats somewhat against weaker competition. The key area of improvement for Beasley will be providing steady pass rush week-to-week regardless of the quality of blocker lined up across from him.

Jarrett recorded three sacks in Super Bowl 51 after a relatively quiet 2016 regular season with the same total. That suggests there is significant room for growth from him in 2017. If he can provide that level of pressure more often this year beside Poe, he could ascend to a new level as one of the league’s premier interior disruptors.

The Falcons also hope to see continued production and development from players like Adrian Clayborn, who finished last season on injured reserve, and Ra’Shede Hageman, who helped fill that void by providing steady interior pressure down the stretch.

At linebacker, 2016 draft picks Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell hopefully will make significant leaps after productive rookie years. Coming off an excellent rookie season, Jones has some room to grow as a run defender.

The presence of Poe should help beef up a Falcons run defense that ranked 29th according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. The 340-pound nose tackle should help better shield both Jones and Campbell from reach blocks that prompted too many breakdowns from the run defense a year ago.

Jones is also trying to bulk up to 235 pounds, which should help toughen him up. Campbell will be deployed at strong-side linebacker in the base defense, which should be a significant upgrade over last year’s starter in Philip Wheeler.

With multiple improving players and the additions made up front to go along with an already strong secondary, the Falcons defense is certainly an ascending unit. With a unit that showed significant improvement down the stretch on their way to the Super Bowl last year, it is a nice foundation to continue that evolution in 2017.

In the end, the data suggests that there is likely going to be some dropoff from the Falcons offense under Sarkisian in 2017, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the team will experience that same dip if the defense takes that next step.

With the aforementioned upgrades and continued development of key players, the Falcons defense certainly have the capability of taking that step. All that needs to happen is proving it on the field this fall.

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Aaron Freeman
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