Lack of Big Plays Fuels Falcons Offensive Struggles

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY SportsJulio Jones

The 6-1 Atlanta Falcons have played their three weakest games of the 2015 season over the past three weeks, largely because their scoring output has been cut in half from the first four games of the season.

In Weeks One through Four, the Falcons averaged 34.3 points per game. In the past three weeks that figure has decreased to 18.7.

In trying to determine why the Falcons have fallen on offensive hardships in recent weeks, I looked at an old staple which was their ability to generate big plays.

I’ve written about the correlation between generating big plays and scoring many, many times in the past. That’s because it’s now impossible for me to not see the connection between teams being able to generate yardage in chunks and their ability to put points on the board.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Shanahan

Football is a fairly simple game in this sense: the team that scores the most points is the victor. So if gaining yardage in big chunks proves to be advantageous to scoring, then it makes absolute sense for teams and offenses to do their best to generate these plays.

Gone are the days in Atlanta where the Falcons featured the “efficient” offenses of Mike Mularkey and Dirk Koetter that tried to engineer long, scoring drives. Instead under new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons have embraced their “explosive” identity that has been elusive over the past several seasons.

At least that was until recently…

Just as a refresher, here are the numbers illustrating the connection between big plays and scoring for the Falcons offense from 2010 to 2014.

Falcons big play drives (2010-14)

CategoryIncl. 20+ PlayNo 20+ PlayIncl. 20+ PlayNo 20+ PlayIncl. 20+ PlayNo 20+ PlayIncl. 20+ PlayNo 20+ PlayIncl. 20+ PlayNo 20+ Play
Total Drives5811546128501225712041129
Points Scored255105213119214191245137178201
Pts Per Drive4.400.914.630.934.281.574.301.144.341.56
Red Zone Trips30122920313132262237
Chance of RZ Trip51.7%10.4%63.0%15.0%62.0%25.4%56.1%21.7%53.7%28.7%
End in Score42263526413643273139
Chance of Score72.4%22.6%76.1%20.3%82.0%29.5%75.4%22.5%75.6%30.2%
End in Touchdown3272710232129142121
Chance of TD55.2%6.1%58.7%7.8%46.0%17.2%50.9%11.7%51.2%16.3%

The chances that the team scores any points and touchdowns increase dramatically when they generate a play of 20 or more yards on any given drive. Collectively over the five-year span, the chances of scoring points increase threefold as the Falcons scored on 76.2 percent of the drives that included a 20-plus-yard play and only 25.1 percent of drives that did not include such a play.

The team also scored three-and-a-half times as many points per drive on those that included big plays over that same span of time.

Now let’s look at the same numbers in 2015, which aren’t too dissimilar from those above:

Falcons 2015 Big-Play Drives

CategoryIncludes 20+ playNo 20+ play
Total Drives2451
Points Scored10147
Pts per drive4.210.92
Red Zone Trips1213
Chance of RZ Trip50.00%25.50%
End in Score1713
Chance of Score70.80%25.50%
End in Touchdown138
Chance of TD54.20%15.70%

But changes emerge when you split the numbers up to see the differences between the first four games of the year versus the last three:

Falcons 2015 Big-Play Drives (Splits)

Splits of the Falcons big play drives in Weeks 1-4 and Weeks 5-7
CategoryWeeks 1-4 Big Play DrivesWeeks 5-7 Big Play Drives
Total Drives168
Points Scored8021
Pts per drive5.002.63
Red Zone Trips84
Chance of RZ Trip50.0%50.0%
End in Score143
Chance of Score87.5%37.5%
End in Touchdown103
Chance of TD62.5%37.5%

Pay close attention the number of points scored per drive as well as the overall chances of scoring points and touchdowns between the two above columns. There has been a steep drop-off in the last three games in all three categories.

That has been caused by the Falcons not doing what head coach Dan Quinn has preached, which is finishing drives. Of the eight big-play drives the Falcons have had in the past three games, two have ended with interception by Matt Ryan, including one in the end zone against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. Another against the Washington Redskins resulted in a missed field goal by kicker Matt Bryant and another resulted in a turnover on downs against the New Orleans Saints. That means half of the Falcons’ big-play drives in recent weeks have ended in failure. Comparatively, only one of the team’s big-play drives in the first four games resulted in a turnover or missed field goal.

The other thing worth noting is that there is a smaller number of the team’s overall drives in the past three weeks that have included big plays. Out of 32 total drives, only eight (25 percent) have included big plays.

During the first four games of the season, 16 of the team’s 43 drives (37 percent) included a big play. Couple that with the team not being able to generate as many points per drive and you can see where the offensive struggles are occurring.

So now that we’ve seen the numbers and evidence showing that the Falcons aren’t as effective generating big plays on offense, what exactly is the cause?

The answer probably revolves around the toe and hamstring injuries that have limited wide receiver Julio Jones in recent games. During the first four games of the year, Jones generated just five of the team’s 17 big plays. In the past three games, Jones has generated six of the team’s 10 big plays.

While he wasn’t directly responsible for many of those big plays during the earlier part of the season, his presence on the field often created opportunities for other players.

Roddy White generated three plays of 20 or more yards during the team’s season-opening victory against the Philadelphia Eagles. All three of them came off play action, with the following image showing Jones’ ability to hold the deep safety as Ryan hits White on the deep crosser.

from NFL Game Pass

At the bottom of the screen, Roddy White beats Eagles CB Byron Maxwell on a deep cross off play action

The Falcons tried this exact play against the Redskins in Week Five and cornerback Bashaud Breeland recognized it, undercut White’s route and picked it off easily:

from NFL Game Pass

Redskins CB Bashaud Breeland undercuts the cross to White for an interception

It’s a perfect illustration of the change in fortunes the Falcons have experienced in recent games versus earlier in the season.

In recent weeks the Falcons have been more reliant on Jones to generate their big plays and with the nagging toe and hamstring injuries limiting him, it’s not creating as many opportunities for other players.

The declining effectiveness of fellow wide receiver Leonard Hankerson has also hurt the Falcons. After three big plays during the first month of the season, Hankerson has generated none in the past three games. That’s partially been due to dropped passes and injuries limiting his effectiveness.

White hasn’t picked up that slack in recent weeks either as he has not been targeted much at all iand has not generated a big play since the Eagles game.

Unfortunately, relying more on the running game to generate those big plays is problematic. The Falcons have just three runs of 20 or more yards this year, which works out to be about once every 69 rushing attempts. Given that the team runs the ball roughly 30 times per game, then it seems that every other game the team can rely on the running game to get them a big chunk of yardage. Perhaps mixing the speedier Tevin Coleman more into the lineup may help, but it’s unlikely to result in drastic improvements.

The Falcons need to find ways to create big plays via the air and that has become tougher as the Falcons have not been taking as many shots downfield as one might expect this year.

According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan is at the bottom of the NFL among starters with the percentage of pass attempts that are thrown further than 20 yards downfield at 7.1 percent. That’s nearly as bad as the figure that Ryan had in 2013 when the offense was uber conservative with a league-low 6.6 percent of his passes were deep throws.

Essentially the Falcons are reverting to their dinking-and-dunking ways. But in recent weeks, it’s not as if the Falcons are attempting less passes. The major dichotomy between the first four games of the year versus the last three is the number of deep passes completed.

While Ryan attempted just eight deep passes (5.6 percent of his total attempts) in the first four weeks, he completed seven of them. Over the past three games, he’s attempted 11 deep passes (8.9 percent of his total attempts), but completed just two of them.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Devonta Freeman (left) and Julio Jones

If you need more proof that Jones’ recent decline has handcuffed the offense look no further. During the first four games of the year, Jones caught all five of the deep passes attempted to him. Over the past three weeks, he’s caught just two of six.

Essentially it’s a “trickle down” effect. When Jones isn’t the dominant vertical threat he was early in the season, it filters down to the rest of the offense, making it less effictive.

While the emergence of running back Devonta Freeman has given the Falcons much-needed balance on offense, the reality is that the team’s ability to score points is more closely tied to the legs and Jones.

Where Freeman can help is the ability to open up play-action opportunities for the other receivers because none of them present the vertical strike capability that a healthy Jones’ possesses. Unfortunately, the Falcons have been playing too often from behind in recent weeks to really maximize Freeman and the running game’s impact.

Over the past three games, the Falcons have held a lead for roughly 22.5 minutes out of the 182.5 minutes (12.3 percent) they’ve played. Compare that to the 132 out of 240 minutes (55 percent) they retained a lead in the first four games.

Holding a lead better allows a team to dictate the game, especially with the running game. Playing from behind leads one to need to score points in a hurry and because of the connection between big plays and scoring is why the Falcons have attempted more deep throws in recent weeks than earlier in the season.

While Freeman continues to get yardage when the Falcons are playing from behind, his ability to impact the game becomes less impactful because he’s not able to generate the big plays the team needs to get points on the scoreboard.

The solution to all these troubles is relatively simple but not easy, as the Falcons simply need to play better. To facilitate better play, they need to start faster on offense and get better defensive play earlier in games so that they don’t fall behind. They certainly need to finish the drives in which they do generate big plays and get points. They need a healthier Jones to be able to dial up the deep ball on a whim, and they need a healthy running game that will allow them to exploit play-action passing more effectively with other wideouts.

Getting all these things going will help the Falcons offense get back on the same track they showed earlier in the season. All of things become a lot easier to accomplish with a healthier Jones in the lineup. The positive is that the extra days of rest coming off the Saints loss seemed to show that Jones looked a bit sprier against the Titans. If Jones’ health continues to trend upwards, then the Falcons could get back on track, particularly after their bye week when the schedule gets a bit tougher.

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