The Atlanta Falcons win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this past Thursday made for a very enjoyable watch. It’s rare when the Falcons roll against any opponent, let alone a divisional rival like the Buccaneers.
But it’s hard to draw too many conclusions from the game. The win essentially boils down to the Falcons having an exceptionally good night and the Bucs having an exceptionally bad one.
Ultimately, it is just one of 16 games the team will play this season. Are the Falcons destined to be one of the top teams in the NFC this year and make the playoffs? Perhaps, but that wasn’t determined by their performance against the Bucs, and instead will be determined by the 13 remaining performances they have this year.
Will it matter in the long run? No more than any week 3 win. Last season, the biggest margin of victory in Week 3 was the Carolina Panthers defeating the New York Giants 38-0. Was that win a precursor to the Panthers successful season? Perhaps, but unlikely.
The Panthers began last season 0-2 with two very close losses to the Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills in the final minutes. Then they roundly beat the Giants before a bye in Week 4. Then in Week 5, they got beat soundly 22-6 by the Arizona Cardinals thanks to four turnovers. Cam Newton turned the ball over on three of their final four possessions, and was sacked for a safety on a fifth one. After which, the Panthers won eight straight games, essentially turning their season around after a sluggish 1-3 start.
And like the Panthers, the Falcons have an opportunity to potentially make or break their 2014 season with their upcoming slate of games, with only one of their next seven games being played in the Georgia Dome.
There’s no doubt that the Falcons are a much better team at home than they are away. Under Mike Smith, the Falcons are 38-12 at home and 24-25 on the road during the regular season. That works out to be the rough equivalent of sporting a 12-4 record at home, while being 8-8 on the road.
When you look at statistics over the past six-plus seasons when the Falcons are at home versus away, there isn’t a lot of disparity to explain the difference in success.
The main points of divergence are the team’s points differential, turnover differential, and passer rating differential.
The Falcons have scored about 4.2 more points and allowed 2.6 less points in home games versus away games since 2008.
The Falcons have a positive turnover margin of +30 at home, but only +1 on the road.
Passer rating differential, which some sites consider the “mother of all stats” is a lot different for the Falcons at home versus away. At home, the Falcons offensive passer rating is 95.4, but the defense allows a passer rating of 84.5 for a differential of 10.9. On the road, the Falcons offensive passer rating is 83.4, but the defense allows a rating of 85.3 for a differential of -1.9.
And that is probably the most telling statistic. The Falcons defensive passer rating is roughly the same regardless of whether they are home versus away. But at home, the Falcons offensive passing is significantly better.
Passer rating is determined by four statistics: completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown percentage and interception percentage. Here are the numbers of how Matt Ryan stacks up in those four categories at home and away, as well as the league average since 2008:
Matt Ryan: Home vs. Away (since 2008)
|Yards Per Attempt||7.58||6.87||6.62|
Essentially, Ryan becomes an average quarterback when the Falcons are on the road as opposed to being a very good quarterback in the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome.
To improve their road performances, the Falcons basically need to do a better job stimulating their pass attack. If they can do that, then it likely leads to more points scored on the road, which will improve their point differential and likely improve their record.
As for the turnovers, figuring that out will be a lot harder. If there is any significant correlation between generating turnovers and another statistic, I’m unaware of it.
Fumbles are essentially random occurrences so if teams have any control over their ability to generate turnovers, it likely depends on interceptions. And obviously, the better your quarterback, generally the lower the number of interceptions thrown.
And while it’s not necessarily confirmed statistically, there does seem to be at least a logical basis that a team could create more interceptions by creating more pressure on the quarterback. Any sort of correlation between the number of interceptions thrown versus the number of sacks a defense generates is pretty much non-existent.
But that makes sense, since interceptions and sacks are independent of one another. If a quarterback is sacked, then there’s no way he can throw an interception. However, a quarterback can throw an interception if he’s only pressured. Unfortunately, pressures are an unofficial statistic.
Our best resource to gauge pressures appears to be premium website Pro Football Focus and their tracking of quarterback hurries. But even then, the trustworthiness of their subjective analysis is somewhat dubious. In my own Moneyball game reviews, I define a pressure as an instance where a pass-rusher applies enough heat to force an incompletion, whether that is via an inaccurate pass, throwaway or interception. There’s no such distinction when it comes to what defines a hurry by Pro Football Focus. And there are certainly valid reasons for that which I won’t waste your time going into now, but nonetheless it would be useful if the metric could be qualified somewhat.
But regardless, there appears to be some correlation between the number of hurries and interceptions generated, at least in 2013. The correlation coefficient between the two categories from last year was 0.508. At least relative to how NFL statistics normally go, that’s a fairly strong correlation.
So there certainly does seem to be some statistical evidence to support the logical conclusion that pressure helps increase turnovers.
That does appear to be borne out thus far with the Falcons season. Pro Football Focus tallied 18 hurries for the Falcons in their Week 1 win over the Saints, a game in which Drew Brees threw one interception. Against the Bengals in Week 2, the Falcons only had six hurries in a game where Andy Dalton did not throw an interception. And Josh McCown had an interception this past week in a game where the Falcons generated 12 hurries.
The Falcons pass rush certainly looked invigorated on Thursday night, but it’s worth wondering if they benefited from playing a weak offensive line in a lop-sided game. There’s certainly a chance that the Falcons will know the answer to that question in the coming weeks.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Bucs pass-blocking was graded as the third weakest in the NFL going into this past week’s games. Of their next seven opponents, three of them entered this weekend among the top 10 best pass-blocking units: Baltimore (first), Chicago (sixth) and Detroit (seventh). The New York Giants (12th) and Panthers (14th) also have had solid pass protection through the first two games of the year. Besides the Buccaneers, who they will replay in Week 10, only next week’s opponent, the Minnesota Vikings, graded as below average in pass blocking (21st).
Obviously if the Falcons pass rush is legitimate as opposed to a “one-week wonder,” then it should be reflected against upcoming quality competition.
Again, it doesn’t appear that we learned much of anything new this past Thursday, but certainly could learn quite a bit about this team in the next few months. We’ve known for many years that the Falcons are very good at home. If there is any sort of conclusion we might want to draw from this past week’s game, it’s that our offense has shown the ability to score points in bunches and generate yardage in chunks more so than they have in past years.
One early positive is that it does appear the Falcons are becoming a much more explosive team than they have been in past years. This was a point I tried to stress in a previous column, as the Falcons needed to veer away from the methodical, conservative approach their offense took during the era of Tony Gonzalez to one that aimed at creating explosive plays via dynamism and aggression.
It does seem like that mission has been somewhat accomplished. It’s been a debate on whether the Falcons offense is potentially better sans Gonzalez but it certainly has been more explosive thus far this year without Gonzalez.
Last season, Gonzalez had just five plays of 20 or more yards throughout the entire season. Just in three weeks, Devin Hester and Antone Smith have combined for six.
In three games, the Falcons as an entire team have generated 18 plays of 20 or more yards. That puts them on pace to have 96 for the entire season. Last year, the most explosive team in the league was the Philadelphia Eagles, who generated 99 20-plus yard plays. The most generated by the Falcons under Smith was 67, which came in 2011. During the first six years of Mike Smith’s tenure, the Falcons generated 331 explosive plays, or roughly 3.4 per game. That’s been nearly doubled in our limited sample size this season.
Now it’s unlikely that the Falcons will be able to retain that sort of pace for the remainder of 2014, especially when one notices once again the disparity of those big plays at home versus away. Only two of the Falcons 18 explosive plays came in their lone road game against the Bengals.
Perhaps the team could help Ryan’s road struggles by finding ways to get the ball more into the hands of playmakers like Hester and Smith. It’s probably not a coincidence that against the Bengals, Hester and Smith only saw three combined touches while they had fourteen in the Falcons’ two home wins. It certainly boosts a quarterback’s passer rating when a running back takes a simple checkdown 54 yards to the house.
Certainly the superior quality of the Bengals defense could be a reason for the low output, although we’ll have much more data to draw from in the coming weeks.
So two things to keep a weather eye upon in the coming weeks’ road games will be pressure generated from the pass rush along with the offense’s explosive capabilities. If the Falcons can get steady production in those two areas in their upcoming road stand, it should accomplish positive results in the win column. And that will set the Falcons up for a stretch where four of their final six games will played inside the Georgia Dome. And if the team continues its success at home, it could mean that things are starting to gel at the right time in the NFL calendar to potentially make a strong push into January.