If you were a regular reader of my Moneyball reviews of Atlanta Falcons games in 2013, you probably recall how much I harped on the lack of big plays in the Falcons offense.
Watching All-22 film of the games, it was clear to me that the Falcons offense stagnated without the explosive element to their offense. But how clearly the link between offensive success and big plays for the Falcons did not become fully realized until well after the season.
That was thanks to some research I did this spring to look at the number of 20-yard plays the team generated in 2013. In the time since, I’ve also done similar research for 2012 just to confirm that this past year’s results weren’t just a one-year aberration.
I looked at all the “big plays” (i.e. plays that gained 20 or more yards) the team has made over the past two years and drives upon which they occurred, to see if the Falcons managed to score points on those drives.
And there’s one clear conclusion: the chances the Falcons offense scores goes up significantly if they can generate big plays of 20 or more yards.
2012-13 Big Play Drives
|Category||Incl. 20+ Play||No 20+ Play||Incl. 20+ Play||No 20+ Play|
|Pts Per Drive||4.65||1.05||4.30||1.61|
|Red Zone Trips||29||20||31||31|
|Chance of RZ Trip||63.04%||15.04%||62.00%||24.41%|
Pay closest attention to the number of points generated per drive on drives that include a big play versus those that do not. Also check out the chances of the Falcons entering the red zone when they generate a big play on a drive versus when they do not.
In 2013, the Falcons were able to score over four times as many points on drives where they generated a big play, and it was nearly three times as much in 2012.
They also were four times as likely to reach the red zone if they generated a big play than if they were not. And that doesn’t factor in the big plays in which the team didn’t technically reach the red zone because they scored on the play. In 2013, there were 10 such big plays that were touchdowns that weren’t counted towards their total red zone trips. In 2012, that number was seven.
If you include those scoring plays, it shows on 84.8 percent of drives in which the Falcons generated a big play, it led directly to points or helped them reach the red zone in 2013. For 2012, that number shoots to 76 percent.
It’s very hard to ignore numbers like this. Especially when they are relatively consistent from 2012 to 2013, two seasons in which the Falcons offense couldn’t have been any more different in terms of its overall efficiency.
It was one of the reasons that made reviewing Falcons games so frustrating over the course of 2013. While I did not have direct knowledge of these numbers at the time, I could implicitly sense this correlation that the Falcons seemed to score a lot more when they were able to generate yards in large chunks.
No game epitomizes this link any stronger than the team’s Week 13 win over the Buffalo Bills, in which the Falcons scored a season-high of 34 points and converted 52.8 percent of their third downs, which nearly exceeded their season-high against the St. Louis Rams in Week 3 of 53.8 percent.
The finger was often pointed at the offensive line’s inability to keep quarterback Matt Ryan upright as the reason for the lack of big plays. Ryan needed more time in the pocket, something the line could not reliably give him, in order to find his sporadic playmakers at receiver down the field.
But it’s interesting that Ryan was sacked six times against the Bills, which was until the Week 17 debacle against the Carolina Panthers, the most in any game last year. Yet the Falcons offense still seemed to click despite the pressure Ryan faced. The same could be said of the Rams game earlier in the year where Robert Quinn and Chris Long put a lot of heat on Ryan throughout that game.
That’s not meant to absolve the offensive line fully of blame, because they certainly deserve a significant portion of it. But it overlooks the simple reality that the Falcons rarely asked their receivers to run routes down the field. The fact would be lost on most observers unless they were reviewing All-22 on NFL Game Rewind.
It’s hard to generate plays of 20 or more yards when the receivers are only running 10-15 yards down the field as they were on the vast majority of pass plays in 2013.
Carson Palmer and Eli Manning faced a comparable amount of pressure as Ryan in 2013, yet they attempted nearly twice the rate of 20-yard or more throws last year:
|Matt Ryan||Carson Palmer||Eli Manning|
|Pct. Under Pressure||41.3%||40.3%||40.3%|
|20+ Yd Attempts||43||74||70|
|Pct. of 20+ Yd Att.||6.6%||12.9%||12.7%|
It’s why shoring up the offensive line and pass protection this offseason, as the team presumably has with additions like Jake Matthews and Jon Asamoah, will not alone solve that problem.
Play-calling and play design is also going to need a major upgrade as well, and that rests firmly on the shoulders of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
Ryan completed 39.5 percent of his deep pass attempts in 2013. Had he attempted the same rate of deep throws as Manning did, that works out to be 32.6 completed 20-yard passes. That’s 17.6 more big plays produced in the passing game than the Falcons actually did in 2013.
If those 17.6 plays occur on the same number of drives, it could potentially lead to 81.8 more points scored in 2013. An additional 82 points would have taken the Falcons from their 20th-ranked scoring offense (353 points) to a 6th-ranked scoring offense (435) last season.
The Falcons all-time record for points scored in a single season is 442, which occurred in their 1998 Super Bowl season.
When the Falcons traded up for Julio Jones in 2011, they explained it was about wanting to get more explosive. The truth is that the team has failed miserably in that regard. In 2010, the team had 44 plays of over 20 yards, and the past two years it’s been 53 and 50 respectively. That’s marginal improvement, indicating that the Falcons were sorely mistaken in thinking that Jones alone would make a dramatic difference.
If the Falcons want to succeed in becoming a more explosive team, it’s not only going to take improvements to their personnel but also a dramatic sea change to their offensive philosophy. Last year was a perfect opportunity for the team to play with that “balls to the wall” philosophy since it was very clear by midseason that they were out of the playoff race, and really had nothing to lose.
This year will present an interesting question: will the Falcons play more fast and loose, or will they revert back to the same conservative formula of the past several years? The Falcons have won many games with that philosophy, but the numbers show that there is significant room for growth with a more aggressive strategy. And if the team finds itself again in a similar position as it was in 2012: on the cusp of a Super Bowl, a more aggressive shift in philosophy could be exactly what pushes the team over the hump.