The Atlanta Falcons really took advantage of their early opportunities, while the Houston Texans did not in the former’s 48-21 blowout win on Sunday.
Football is often termed a “game of inches” stemming from how closely the outcomes of games are often decided. That was certainly true in the Falcons-Texans matchup despite the huge difference in the final score, the outcome was anything but finalized in the first 20 or so minutes.
That’s not meant to lessen the strength of the Falcons victory, simply that it shows the two differing directions that either team is heading in. The Falcons are off to a 4-0 start, only the fourth in the fifty years of franchise history. The team’s next five opponents before the bye week have a combined record of 6-13, suggesting that there’s a stronger than average possibility that the Falcons could extend their record to a all-time-best 9-0.
Meanwhile the Texans have started the season 1-3 and have to hope their salvation comes in the form of three divisional games over the next month before their bye week. They still have a chance to turn their season around, but if they respond to adversity in the manner that they did against the Falcons on Sunday, then it spells trouble for the remainder of their season.
Things started well for the Texans as they were able to force a Falcons three-and-out on the opening series. They seemed to be moving the ball on their own with running back Arian Foster receiving the first three offensive touches for a combined 20 yards. But then Texans quarterback Ryan Mallett tried to force a pass to DeAndre Hopkins in traffic and Jonathan Babineaux snatched the interception off the deflection.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn showed guts on the ensuing series, opting to go for it on 4th-and-1. Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus was able to get good position against Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo, but was unable to wrap up Devonta Freeman on a one-yard conversion.
Freeman continued to scar the Texans defense with two plays to finish the drive that combined for 40 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown run. The Texans were down 7-0 but seemingly still had a chance to rebound if they could get something going on offense.
Things started to move their way on the second play of the ensuing series as Alfred Blue was able to find room behind his blockers for a nine-yard gain and a first down. But on the next play, Brooks Reed and Tyson Jackson converged on Blue for a one-yard loss.
Now put in a 2nd-and-long, an adverse situation, the Texans offense was halted and they punted two plays later. Mallett’s inability to be an effective thrower in passing situations now had cost the Texans two drives.
Texans Mistake Prove Costly to Close Out First Quarter
However their defense was still keeping them in the game as we saw on the next Falcons possession. Freeman was stuffed for a two-yard loss on first down and J.J. Watt batted down Matt Ryan’s second-down pass. But Jadeveon Clowney’s illegal use of hands penalty gift-wrapped the Falcons a first down after a solid pair of defensive plays.
On the next play, Vince Wilfork busted up a run by Freeman, who fumbled at the end of the play. If the Texans had recovered the loose ball they could have had the ball at the Falcons’ 27-yard line and in prime scoring position. But Freeman recovered his own fumble. However, Andy Levitre’s holding call backed up the Falcons 10 yards.
Pressure got to Ryan and he was dropped for a sack soon after. The Falcons were now at 3rd-and-15 but guess what? The Texans screwed up again with cornerback Kevin Johnson being flagged for illegal contact after Leonard Hankerson was knocked to the ground downfield.
Instead of getting the ball back with three minutes left in the first quarter with an opportunity to tie the game, the Texans had just handed the Falcons another first down off another unnecessary penalty.
However the Falcons didn’t quite yet take advantage, as they were pushed back again by another one of their own penalties, this time a push off by Roddy White. However three plays later on 3rd-and-11 Ryan unlike Mallett, was able to convert a long third down with a 16-yard corner pass to Hankerson.
With the second quarter starting a few plays later, the Falcons found themselves deep into Texans territory. After a Jake Matthews false start, the Texans defense continued to do good work as Brian Cushing was able to get to Ryan for a sack. However another illegal use of hands penalty, this time on safety Eddie Pleasant, gave the Falcons another first down. On the very next play, Freeman scored on a 23-yard run following a great block by guard Chris Chester in the hole.
Let’s recap that drive. Outside a handful of plays, the Texans defense was able to thwart the Falcons offense multiple times but penalties gifted the Falcons three first downs, allowing them to continually extend that drive despite the Texans’ stinginess.
It’s a tale of two teams, as the Texans are put in favorable situations but cannot get out of their own way. Contrastingly the Falcons put in unfavorable situations like the previous 3rd-and-11 were able to respond with good plays of their own.
Even at this point down 14-0 at the start of the second quarter, this game hasn’t quite gotten away from the Texans. They’ve just had a couple of bad breaks and if they can get something going on this next offensive series, maybe they can still make this a game.
Yet this is the point where the Falcons defense decides to get involved. Desmond Trufant broke up a first-down throw to Hopkins and Jonathan Babineaux busted up a second-down run to Arian Foster. On 3rd-and-10, Vic Beasley then put a big hit on Mallett to force an overthrow to tight end Garrett Graham. Another 3rd-and-long, another Texans punt.
But guess what? The Texans defense was still fighting and clawing in this game. J.J. Watt takes over on the next series, batting down a pass by Ryan and then smoking past Ryan Schraeder to get a sack, thanks to a missed chip block by Terron Ward. The Falcons punt the ball right back to the Texans, giving them another opportunity to resurrect their chances of winning the game.
Yet the Texans can’t get out of their own way, as right tackle Derek Newton managed to strip his own teammate, knocking the ball loose out of Foster’s arms. Trufant scoops up the loose ball and gets the easiest defensive touchdown of his career on a 24-yard fumble recovery.
Falcons Take Over Game in Second Quarter
Down 21-0 and it’s not even fully midway through the second quarter and only now is the game starting to get away from the Texans. It shows even further on the ensuing series.
After converting their first third down of the game, the Texans responded with a false start penalty. They nearly had a delay of game on the next play if not for a timeout bailing them out. Three plays later, Robert Alford was able to jam Hopkins at the line of scrimmage and break up a throw to force another Texans punt.
So what do the Falcons do? They put the nail in the coffin of course. By the time the Falcons lined up on second down with 5:12 left in the first half, they already had a 95 percent win probability according to Advanced Football Analytics’ calculator. The 44-yard play by Freeman on a busted coverage didn’t move that needle very much, but it set up another score and down 28-0 with still an entire second half to go there was essentially no chance for the Texans to climb back into the game.
That became even more apparent when their next offensive snap resulted in a fumble by tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz after a great hit by William Moore.
I don’t say all this to suggest that the result of the game was solely due to the Texans losing as opposed to the Falcons winning. The Falcons certainly won the game. The Texans just gave them ample opportunities early in the game and the Falcons pounced, and that merits plenty of credit.
The Falcons relied on their playmakers like Trufant, Babineaux, Moore, Beasley and Freeman to step up and make big plays that resulted in or led to scores. My larger point on the Texans’ ineptitude is to better illustrate the contrasting environments you find in Houston versus Atlanta.
Stats Back Up Falcons Improvement
In the latter city, the Falcons are playing with energy under their new head coach in Quinn. He has this team believing that they’re a good football team and they’re showing many of the indicators that they truly are.
The Falcons were a perfect four of four converting their red-zone trips into touchdowns against the Texans. That puts their season total at 12 of 15, or 80 percent, which is good for best in the league.
The Falcons got four big plays of 20 or more yards on four separative drives against the Texans, leading to four touchdowns. For the season the Falcons have a total of 16 offensive drives that included a play of 20 yards or more, resulting in 82 points. That’s an average of over five points per drive.
On their other 28 offensive drives (discounting kneel downs), they have scored just 35 points this year, little more than one point per drive.
As I pointed out during the summer, the stats continue to show how much more potent the Falcons offense is when they are able to generate big plays. They are scoring four times as many points per drive and their chances of scoring a touchdown on a drive including a 20-plus-yard play jump up to 62.5 percent versus 14.3 percent on the drives that don’t include one, again a four-fold increase.
Freeman’s Recent Success Suggest Same is On Horizon for Coleman
Surprisingly, it’s not entirely Jones generating those big plays. After adding three on Sunday against the Texans, Freeman now sits in second place behind Jones’ five with four 20-plus-yard plays of his own.
Freeman has been the team’s biggest surprise, sparking the team both on the ground and in the passing game. He has been instrumental in the Falcons’ two wins the past two weeks over the Texans and Dallas Cowboys.
Since taking over the starting lineup a week ago, Freeman has gained 209 yards on 44 carries (4.8 avg) and six touchdowns. But more importantly Freeman has been successful on 52 percent of those carries, meaning that he’s done an excellent job keeping the offense on schedule.
That’s a significant improvement from Coleman’s success rate of 38 percent on his 29 carries through the first two games. But to be fair to Coleman, Freeman wasn’t any better showing a success rate of 36 percent through the first two weeks.
The hope is that Freeman’s emergence the past two weeks has a lot to do with improved blocking up front, meaning that when Coleman returns from his rib injury in the future he too will see a significant uptick in his rushing production.
But with a steady running game, the Falcons are no longer a team that relies exclusively on Jones to motivate their offense. They didn’t need him against the Texans as he had a relatively quiet four catches for 38 yards.
Improved Third-Down Defense Guiding Falcons
Last but not least, one cannot forget about the revamped Falcons defense. The four turnovers the Falcons caused against the Texans puts their season total at eight. The team is now plus-six in turnover margin, a very good development.
It’s not quite on the level of the 2012 team that was plus-10 in turnover margin over the first month of that season, but it’s a huge confidence booster for a defense that is resurgent under Quinn’s leadership.
The Falcons defense really put the clamps on a weak Texans offense on Sunday. Until the Texans’ final four possessions when they were facing the Falcons backups, the starting defense allowed just 171 total yards and had prevented the Texans from converting seven of their eight third downs. If not for the padding the Texans did in the fourth quarter, the Falcons would have an allowed third-down conversion rate of 35 percent on defense this year, good enough to be near the top of the league. That’s a dramatic shift from past Falcons defenses.
The Falcons finished 24th or worst in third-down defense over the past six seasons. The team is now getting off the field on third down and that stark change from recent years might be the best signifier of the positive changes that Quinn has brought to Atlanta over the first month of 2015.