This past weekend all four road teams won in the opening round of the playoffs for the first time ever since the modern playoff format was adopted in 1990. And the reason those teams were able to accomplish this first-time feat was because of defense.
The four teams that triumphed: the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers became the 36th through 39th teams over the past 26 years to win in the opening round of the playoffs on the road.
Defense and Turnovers Critical For Road Success in January
When looking over the history of the 35 other teams that accomplished the same feat, it quickly becomes apparent that most of the teams were led by strong defenses. That has been especially true since 2005 as 21 teams have managed to pull off the road win in the first round of the playoffs. The following table shows the data:
Road Wildcard Winners (1990-2015)This table shows the defensive DVOA rankings (according by Football Outsiders) of winning teams on the road in the first round of the players versus their home counterparts.
|Year||Result||Road Winner||Def DVOA Rank||Home Loser||Def DVOA Rnk||TO Margin|
|2015||W 35-18||Green Bay||9||Washington||21||0|
|2015||W 30-0||Kansas City||6||Houston||8||4|
|2013||W 27-10||San Diego||32||Cincinnati||5||4|
|2013||W 23-20||San Francisco||13||Green Bay||31||-1|
|2013||W 26-24||New Orleans||10||Philadelphia||23||-2|
|2010||W 21-16||Green Bay||2||Philadelphia||11||-1|
|2010||W 30-7||Baltimore||6||Kansas City||20||3|
|2010||W 17-16||NY Jets||5||Indianapolis||24||-1|
|2009||W 33-14||Baltimore||4||New England||14||2|
|2009||W 24-14||NY Jets||1||Cincinnati||13||2|
|2007||W 24-14||NY Giants||13||Tampa Bay||4||3|
|2005||W 23-0||Carolina||2||NY Giants||13||5|
|2005||W 17-10||Washington||4||Tampa Bay||8||2|
|2004||W 31-17||Minnesota||32||Green Bay||29||4|
|2004||W 20-17 OT||NY Jets||14||San Diego||13||1|
|2004||W 27-20||St. Louis||28||Seattle||21||0|
|2002||W 27-7||Atlanta||12||Green Bay||5||5|
|1997||W 23-22||Minnesota||27||NY Giants||4||-1|
|1995||W 35-20||Indianapolis||17||San Diego||12||3|
|1993||W 28-24||Green Bay||6||Detroit||14||1|
|1992||W 36-20||Philadelphia||2||New Orleans||1||3|
|1991||W 27-20||Atlanta||15||New Orleans||2||1|
In that 11-year span since 2005, all but one of those 21 teams have finished ranked 15th or higher in Football Outsiders defensive efficiency (or DVOA) ratings. 16 of those teams have finished in the top 10 and 11 in the top five.
The one outlier was the 2013 San Diego Chargers, who finished dead last in Football Outsiders defensive rankings that year. But they managed to upset the Cincinnati Bengals on the road thanks to a plus-four turnover margin in one of quarterback Andy Dalton’s worst career performances.
Which brings about another interesting statistic, which is how often those winning road teams manage to win the turnover battle. 29 times in the 39 contests since 1990 did the road team manage to win the turnover margin.
That of course makes sense, as teams with good defenses should be able to create multiple turnovers and give their offenses more opportunities to put points on the board.
As most know, turnovers can be critical in deciding the outcomes of football games. Since 1990, teams that have a turnover margin of plus-one or greater win games 82.6 percent of the time. Comparatively in the regular season, the winning outcome comes in 78.8 percent of such contests.
This is all poignant to the Atlanta Falcons because it shows their path to postseason success potentially lies on the defensive side of the ball. While most of the complaints surrounding the team’s 2015 season centered on the offense (or rather the offensive coordinator), it’s improving the defense that may be the team’s best path to bringing a Lombardi Trophy to Atlanta.
It’s very telling that throughout the team’s history, the Falcons have rarely sported a defense good enough to pull off the sort of road win we saw four times this past weekend. Since 1990, the Falcons have finished in the top 10 of Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency rankings only twice: 1998 and 2011. Comparatively, the team has finished in the bottom 10 rankings 14 times over the past 26 seasons with three more 11th from worst finishes.
This past year’s defense finished a lowly 22nd in the rankings, which was a stark improvement from where they were a year ago (32nd), but still a long way to go before the Falcons hope to pull off any postseason road upset.
Defensive Holes Abound For Falcons
While improving some key areas on offense such as wide receiver, tight end and center is needed this offseason, the Falcons cannot afford to neglect their defense.
The Falcons still struggled to get off the field on third downs in 2015, finishing 26th in the league. To help in that regard, improving a pass rush that ranked dead last in the league with 19 sacks is once more a priority.
According to Football Outsiders, the Falcons were also dead last when it came to defending running backs in the passing game, as opposing runners averaged a league-high 59.8 receiving yards per game against the Falcons in 2015. Improving the team’s linebacker corps should help in that regard, especially if the team can find an upgrade over middle linebacker Paul Worrilow.
Last offseason saw the Falcons invest in their cornerback position via the draft and this offseason would be an opportune time to invest in the other secondary position: safety. There, veteran William Moore might be released this offseason and Ricardo Allen, while promising in his first year as a starter, did little to say that the free safety position should be his permanently.
While their 8-8 record in 2015 suggests that the Falcons aren’t far from being a playoff team, the number of holes on both sides of the ball suggest that they are a far way from being a legit Super Bowl contender. If the Carolina Panthers are expected to have firm control of the NFC South for many years to come, then it’s likely that the Falcons will have to settle for wildcard positioning in the foreseeable future. If that’s the case, then it of course means that they will be compelled to open the postseason on the road. As the above stats indicate, the defense still has a ways to go before it can be expected to win away from the Georgia Dome.
Falcons Opt to Keep Dimitroff Despite Inability to Build Up Past Defenses
The historic lack of effective defense puts other events of the past week into context as well, mainly the team’s decision to retain general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
I outlined last May why Dimitroff had done a poor job during his seven-year tenure as general manager, making note of the lack of improvements he made to a 2010 defense that couldn’t force a single punt against the Packers in the playoffs that year. That 2010 unit, according to Football Outsiders, ranked 14th in defensive efficiency. The Falcons were able to maintain a fairly high standard the next two years, ranking eighth and 12th, respectively, before falling into the cellar in 2013 and 2014.
That two-year run of relative stability shouldn’t be a surprise considering that much of that 2010 unit remained in 2012. Over that span the team had managed to swap in Ray Edwards for Jamaal Anderson and Chauncey Davis along the defensive line, as well as relying on the continued development of Kroy Biermann, Vance Walker, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry.
At linebacker, 2010’s Curtis Lofton was swapped out for 2012’s Akeem Dent. Again the team was reliant on Sean Weatherspoon showing growth from his rookie year in 2010 to his third season in 2012 at the linebacker position.
In the secondary, Asante Samuel, Robert McClain and Dominique Franks were added at cornerback, replacing Brent Grimes and Brian Williams. Elsewhere in the secondary, Thomas DeCoud, William Moore and Chris Owens were still young and green in 2010 but entrenched veterans by 2012.
The Falcons developed a strong sense of complacency between those two years of 2010 and 2012 in regards to their defense. The team’s initial plan was to develop the young defenders they had drafted from 2008 to 2010, supplemented with the likes of Edwards, Dent, Samuel and McClain, and it paid off to a certain extent. As I noted last May, I have little complaints with Dimitroff’s moves during his first three years in Atlanta, as it definitely seemed like the team had a firm plan of action.
But unfortunately for him and the Falcons, many of those key players in 2010 and 2012 started to depart or decline thereafter. By the time we reached 2014, the Falcons had whiffed badly with a number of their attempts to replace many of the standouts from previous years. None more apparent than the team’s attempts to swap out John Abraham for Osi Umenyiora in 2013, which still resonates today with the team’s ongoing problems pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
The Falcons had failed to make significant investments via the draft in 2011 and 2012 on the defensive side of the ball and thus became too reliant on 2013 undrafted players like Joplo Bartu and Worrilow as well as 2013 and 2014 mid and late-round picks like Prince Shembo, Malliciah Goodman, Jonathan Massaquoi and Kemal Ishmael to fill the voids of their predecessors.
As was to be expected, the team got burned by overly relying on that middling and marginal talent to carry the day. It of course resulted in one of the worst defenses in NFL history in 2014.
Firing Dimitroff this offseason wouldn’t have retroactively fixed any of these problems, but it could have been owner Arthur Blank’s way of holding the former accountable for those past mistakes. Instead the Falcons will move forward with Dimitroff and second-in-command Scott Pioli in place atop the front office and restructure the rest of the underlings.
Dimitroff has lost much of his former power when Blank restructured the organization a year ago upon the hiring of head coach Dan Quinn. Quinn has final say over the final 53-man roster and Dimitroff no longer was solely in charge of the draft process due to Pioli taking over there.
It’s possible that with the Falcons set to open up a new stadium in 2017, Blank didn’t want to bring too much upheaval to Flowery Branch before then. By the end of the team’s inaugural season in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Quinn should have had enough time to establish whether the current power he wields over the roster has paid off with the team in a much better position than it is today.
If that success does come to fruition, then it’s likely that Quinn will have a much stronger base of power to flex his muscles and bring in someone new at general manager, such as one of the candidates mentioned a few weeks ago. If not, then the Falcons might be preparing to make a head-coaching change and it would be time for Blank to blow things up anyway and start over. Either way, Blank’s current vote of confidence in Dimitroff should only be interpreted as “for the time being.”
Value in Free Agency Versus Draft Informs Offseason Plan of Attack
Quinn will have to learn from Dimitroff’s mistakes and not become too complacent and reliant on lesser talent to do the job that high-round picks should be doing. Thus I’m hopeful that the Falcons can fortify their offense this upcoming offseason via free agency and leave their draft picks free to begin sowing fruitful seeds on the defensive side of the ball.
Given the pressure that looms over offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan moving forward, this approach makes even more sense. If the team is looking for immediate results, free agency is the best avenue to find it.
Rookie wide receivers are notorious for having high learning curves and thus if the Falcons want someone that can immediately step in and replace Roddy White opposite Julio Jones, signing a veteran gets the best bang for their buck. The same applies to offensive linemen as the Falcons’ own history of selecting blockers shows this. Even draft picks over the years that turned out well such as Jake Matthews, Justin Blalock and Todd McClure didn’t offer much during their respective rookie seasons.
This doesn’t mean that the Falcons should ignore their defense in free agency, particularly when it comes to addressing the pass rush. Vic Beasley, Patrick Kerney and Chuck Smith combined for a total of 8.5 sacks during their rookie seasons, once again indicating that even successful pass-rushers (or potentially successful in Beasley’s case), typically start slow in the NFL.
Only four rookies from the 2015 draft class eclipsed Beasley’s four sacks this year. Perhaps the Falcons could select the next Preston Smith (eight sacks this past year), but given the numbers I posted back in March about how difficult it is for pass-rushers to hit the ground running in the NFL, that seems doubtful. Those numbers indicate that overwhelmingly, rookies that post eight or more sacks typically go to teams with an already established individual pass-rusher or an overall defensive unit that is among the better groups in the league. The Falcons failed to check either of those boxes in 2015, making it highly unlikely they manage to land an impact rookie pass-rusher in 2016.
If the Falcons hope to make immediate upgrades to their pass rush, they must resort to making at least one if not several significant moves in free agency. Otherwise, they’ll be solely reliant on whatever growth Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Ra’Shede Hageman show next year. That could be significant, but it alone probably won’t allow the Falcons to flip the script as one of the league’s worst pass rushes and third-down defenses.
As for the linebacker and safety positions, the Falcons can probably afford to wait for the draft to address those spots rather than being compelled to make moves in free agency. The team already invested significantly in free agency last spring at linebacker with additions like Justin Durant, Brooks Reed, Allen Bradford, O’Brien Schofield and subsequently Philip Wheeler during the season. With exception of Bradford, the others could all return to the team in 2016. It’s time that they draft someone and infuse some talented youth to the position. Simply put, the Falcons haven’t hit on a talented, young linebacker since drafting Weatherspoon in 2010. That’s far too long a drought.
Additionally it’s probably as simple as saying “out with the old, in with the new” in terms of replacing Moore at strong safety. Allen, Ishmael and Robeson Therezie are all young safeties that flashed ability this past year. But Allen and Ishmael are fifth and seventh-round picks, respectively, with Therezie being an undrafted free agent. The Falcons should not fall into the same trap as Dimitroff did at the linebacker position in thinking such low-level is are good enough to get it done in the future. Between the three of them, the team might be optimistic in hoping one emerges as a viable long-term starter, but certainly not two. Utilizing one of the team’s picks in the first three or four rounds of this year’s draft could go a long way to solidifying the other safety spot for the future.
The Falcons can learn quite a bit from this past weekend’s games as well the personnel missteps of Dimitroff over the years. The bottom line is that not only in 2016 but also in future years, the team will have to make a significant investment in building their defense if they hope to become one of the next teams to steal a win on the road in January.