Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – July 13, 2015

Brett Davis-USA TODAY SportsKyle Shanahan (left) and Matt Ryan

In last week’s column, I discussed whether the Atlanta Falcons’ offseason additions at wide receiver would help the team become better mainly by focusing on whether or not they are better fits with quarterback Matt Ryan as well as whether the Falcons offense will become more explosive.

I cited an article that I wrote in 2014 where I analyzed why the Falcons conservative, dink and dunk style of offense was a flawed concept. I determined that by looking at how much more successful the Falcons were at scoring points on drives when they were able to generate a big play of 20 or more yards.

By looking at the 2013 season, the numbers showed that the Falcons were four times more likely to enter the red zone on drives that they were able to generate at least one play of 20-plus yards, as well as scoring on average four times as many points per drive. In looking back at the 2012 season, I saw that the team’s success nearly tripled in such instances.

I was curious to see how things stood in 2014 and also decided to look into 2011 and 2010 as well. In so doing, I realized that some of my original numbers in that previous article were slightly off because they included drives that were kneel downs. It didn’t really make a huge difference, but this time around, I decided to exclude such drives from the data. I also realized that my point totals were slightly off due to the mistake of including returns and defensive touchdowns.

I’ll give you the new numbers from the past five years and you can read my interpretation afterwards:

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 number of points the Falcons score on each drive that includes a play of 20 or more yards is fairly consistent from year to year, hovering between 4.3 and 4.6 points per drive. But there are greater fluctuations in the number of points that the Falcons score on drives that don’t include big plays, topping out around 1.6 points when the Falcons were at peak efficiency in 2010 and 2012, but falling as low as 0.9 points over the past two seasons.

That’s also illustrated by the number of non-big-play drives that resulted in scores and/or touchdowns. When the Falcons were at their most efficient, they were able to score field goals or touchdowns on roughly 30 percent of those drives and scored only touchdowns about one-sixth of the time.

These numbers illustrate the two opposing styles and philosophies of offense: efficient versus explosive.

Falcons Early Offensive Personnel Geared Towards Efficiency

For the entirety of the Mike Smith era, the Falcons relied on being efficient. This made sense considering most of their personnel was built around this style of football. Having a quarterback like Ryan, who isn’t known for chucking it all over the field. Using a basketball analogy, Ryan is more akin as a point guard to a distributor like John Stockton than a “slasher” like Russell Westbrook.

While in his youth wide receiver Roddy White was known for his abilities to stretch the field, the influence of both Ryan and Smith’s conservative approaches caused him to become more of an intermediate possession receiver than a dynamic downfield threat.

The addition of tight end Tony Gonzalez in 2009 was really the key piece that transformed the Falcons into one of efficiency over explosiveness. The days where Gonzalez was one of the premier athletes in the league were long gone when he arrived in Atlanta at age 33.

Gonzalez earned his pay check with his ability to keep the chains moving on third downs as well as being a go-to option in the red zone. Those are two scenarios where efficiency overrules explosiveness. If it’s 3rd-and-2, getting 25 yards is overkill. All teams really care about is getting three yards and a new set of downs. And of course, everything condenses in the red zone.

Those players coupled with the hard running of Michael Turner pushed the Falcons to being a team that would engineer much of its scoring off long drives that may or may not require them to convert multiple third downs on their way to the end zone.


Julio Jones (left) and Roddy White

Falcons Attempted to Switch Offensive Gears in 2011

Obviously things changed in 2011. After the Falcons got blown out by the Green Bay Packers in the 2010-11 playoffs, the team wanted to make a change for the better. The table shows us that it marked the first year where the majority of the team’s points came off drives featuring big plays.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff, in his own words, became enamored with the idea of having another top receiver to deploy across from White, in the hopes that it would make the Falcons more explosive. Subsequently the Falcons bet the farm to move up in the 2011 draft to select Julio Jones to fill that role.

Even an ardent Dimitroff detractor like myself can’t fault him or Smith for that desire to get more explosive. It was the right decision. The problems stemmed from the execution thereafter.

One of the points that I’ve consistently tried to express over the past few months in the wake of the demise and dismissal of Smith, is that the problems that plagued the Falcons in 2013 and 2014 didn’t appear out of nowhere. Most of them started in that 2011 offseason when the Falcons made that pivotal decision to switch gears in terms of their offensive philosophy.

Ultimately, the failures of Dimitroff and Smith probably rests with their thinking that they can simply add Jones and little else and most, if not all of the team’s issues would be resolved. The Falcons brass operated under the assumption that they could maintain their efficiency, but sprinkle a bit of explosiveness via Jones on top.

One can certainly argue that they weren’t wrong. In 2012, the Falcons got as close to the mountaintop as you can get by being “10 yards away” from defeating the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.

Falcons Unknowingly Missed Opportunities in 2013 Offseason

 Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Steven Jackson

However, unbeknownst to Dimitroff and Smith as we entered 2013, the returns on their 2011 and 2012 drafts would ultimately prove nonexistent. Thus they really needed to nail free agency in 2013 to compensate by treading water until they could rebound with stronger drafts to make up for the missed opportunities in previous years. Unfortunately, the moves that the team made that offseason only put them in more dire straits.

The move from Turner to Steven Jackson didn’t pay the dividends the Falcons had hoped. The Falcons dubbed fourth-round pick Levine Toilolo to be Gonzalez’s heir apparent in the 2013 draft after squandering three years on Michael Palmer.

The Falcons continued to ignore their lack of wide receiver depth that offseason, once again passing on adding a young player to develop in the 2013 draft for the third time in five years. Thus making them vulnerable to the numerous injuries that hit them that same year.

Also the team’s offensive efficiency was plagued even further by the changes the team made to their offensive line prior to 2013. Out the door were long-time fixtures Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo in favor of the ill-fated Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes.

These decisions coupled with their inability to bolster the defense really are the core reasons to why the Falcons went from the summit to the cellar in two short years.

As the above table illustrates, the Falcons became far less efficient as 2012 turned in 2013. Whether by measuring by their chances of reaching the red zone, scoring points or touchdowns, by any measure the 2013 offense was anywhere between 32 and 55 percent less efficient than the previous year’s team. Unfortunately that drop-off in efficiency was not compensated by a comparable increase in explosiveness.

However, in 2014 there was an upward trend in terms of the team’s explosiveness. The 2014 team had the highest number of drives that included 20-plus-yard plays as well as generated the most points scored off those drives thanks to highest number of touchdowns in the data’s five-year span.

The addition of Devin Hester as well as giving Antone Smith more touches were two causes of that uptick. Having a healthy Jones that served as the fulcrum of the offense also led to becoming more explosive in 2014.

As far as the 2015 team, things should only get better. It’s one of the reasons why I’m optimistic that the Falcons will reverse the trend of the past two seasons and get back into the metaphorical driver’s seat also known as playoff contention this fall.

Quinn’s Lessons From Seattle Should Inspire Explosiveness in Atlanta

Quinn’s experience in Seattle likely allows him to understand the value of explosive plays. Having coached one of the league’s best defenses of all-time, Quinn should understand how damaging big plays can be. When playing the best defenses in the league, efficiency works against an offense. The offense’s ability to facilitate extended drives that rely on converting multiple first and third downs is impossible against a top-notch defense. Top defenses like the Seahawks are only really vulnerable to offenses that can get yards in large chunks.

To understand this, all one has to do is compare and contrast the Seahawks NFC Championship game performance against the Packers against their Super Bowl performance against the New England Patriots this past year.

A reason why the Patriots beat the Seahawks was because of their ability to get chunk yards. The Patriots had five plays over 20 or more yards in that game on four different offensive possessions. Thanks to the data I outlined above, it should be no coincidence to anyone that those were four offensive series that the Patriots scored all their points on to ultimately defeat the Seahawks 28-24.

In contrast, the Packers only had two plays of 20 or more yards on two separate drives in the NFC Championship game, generating just three points. Even being gift-wrapped four first-half turnovers, the Seahawks defense proved far too stingy and the Packers struggled to score enough points on their way to a 28-22 loss.

Also Quinn will likely take cues from the Seahawks offense where quarterback Russell Wilson is to some extent the polar opposite to Ryan. Wilson is a quarterback that is geared primarily to operating an explosive passing game, while Ryan is geared towards efficiency.

There is never going to be a day where either of those statements are untrue as the old sayings about leopards and tigers certainly applies. But the goal of new Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is to maintain Ryan’s efficiency while allowing for more explosiveness.

As I explained last week, the best avenue to accomplish that goal is by relying on play-action passing game. The Falcons don’t yet have the complete set of receivers that are really geared towards being an explosive passing attack. Outside Jones, the majority of their remaining receivers are better suited for the short-to-intermediate passing game. Hester and Bernard Reedy are potentially lethal options due to their explosive capabilities after the catch, which is something Shanahan can build off. But besides those two, players like White, Justin Hardy and Leonard Hankerson are better suited running mostly short-to-intermediate routes.

The same goes with the team’s tight ends, especially if Jacob Tamme is the starter. Tamme can be thought of as a very poor man’s Gonzalez in the sense that they win in similar situations: on short and intermediate routes, but Tamme simply doesn’t win nearly as much.

Running Game Might Be Key to Falcons Becoming More Explosive

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Devonta Freeman

However what the Falcons lack in terms of explosiveness at wide receiver is more than made up for at the running back position. Tevin Coleman and Smith stand out there, as they are two players potentially capable of taking it to the house every time they touch the ball. Devonta Freeman isn’t on that level as a home-run threat, but is more likely to get the chunk yardage that Jackson left on the field the past two years.

In each of the past two years, the Falcons have generated just six runs of 20 or more yards. That figure was seven in 2012, but 11 in both 2011 and 2010.

Smith has generated five of the team’s combined dozen big-play runs in the past two years. Both Freeman and Coleman are capable of matching or exceeding that number this year if given the appropriate amount of carries.

It should be noted that in team history, five of the six times they have managed to score 400 or more points in a season. The lone exception was their 1981 season where the team scored 426 total points, second most in franchise history.

Last year, the Falcons scored 381 points, which besides 1981 is the most the team ever scored in a non-playoff year. If 400 is the magic number to get the team back to the playoffs, then five more big-play drives averaging 4.5 points per drive may be all that is necessary to reach that benchmark.

The increased opportunities given to Freeman and Coleman alone should allow the team to accomplish that. Coupling their rushing success with a higher number of big plays in the passing game thanks to play action, and you could see the Falcons sporting one of their more potent offensive attacks in team history.

If Quinn can return the defense to just a level of competence where the offense isn’t constantly forced to dig itself out of a hole, then you have your recipe for why the 2015 Falcons will be back in the postseason.

And so that Quinn doesn’t eventually find himself in the same boat that Smith was this past year, his long-term goal will be to continue to acquire personnel that fits his philosophy rather than letting things lapse as the previous regime did.

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