2013 Team Preview: Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons

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  • 2012 Record: 13-3 (1st in NFC South, lost NFC Championship Game to San Francisco)
  • 2012 Point Differential: +120 (5th out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): -1.1 (t-22nd)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.39 (12th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 5.26 (23rd)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.30 (13th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.58 (7th)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 458.63 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 385.46 points

In the eyes of most observers, the Falcons finally got over the playoff hump last season, but did so in just about the most Falcons way possible – they built up a 27-7 lead over the Seahawks, then so brutally face-planted the fourth quarter that Matt Ryan needed to lead a last-minute drive just to get a field goal that would put the Falcons back in front again. Then after Matt Bryant’s field goal sailed through the uprights, Matt Bosher botched the ensuing squib kick so badly that the Seahawks still had an opportunity to win with six seconds left.

The Falcons hung on for a 30-28 victory, but the dominant emotion expressed on the face of Atlanta players after the game was more relief than joy and the team’s near-collapse essentially erased any goodwill their dominant performance in the first three quarters had built up. Thus, despite compiling a 13-3 record in the regular season and retaining home-field advantage, the Falcons were still installed as 4.5 point underdogs against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. There, Atlanta jumped out to another big lead – 17-0 in the second quarter – but completed their collapse this time as the 49ers held them scoreless in the second half and went on to win 28-24.

So even though Mike Smith and Matt Ryan earned their first playoff victory together as a head coach/quarterback tandem, their team’s performance in the second half of both playoff games left ample material for the team’s detractors to keep the “Atlanta chokes in the playoffs” narrative alive and well. Ryan posted career highs in every meaningful passing statistic (including Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt), but none of that matters to most of the public at large, who mainly seem to rank quarterback according to one statistic: “COUNT DA RINGS.” And the Falcons have won more regular season games than any team except New England over the past five years, but that achievement accompanied with such scant postseason success tends to get treated with more derision than applause – the “Next Year’s Champions” label acknowledges the obvious skill a team possesses while simultaneously mocking its inability to win the biggest thing that matters in the sport.

In other words, the Falcons are in exactly the same spot the Cowboys and Chargers found themselves in the last half of last decade and the Eagles and Colts found before them in the first half of the ’00s. Indianapolis eventually slayed their inner postseason demons and won a Super Bowl, but the three other teams have a lot in this current edition of the Falcons. They all had sustained regular season success over a long period of time, they all had really, really good but not quite great quarterbacks and none of them could enjoy what they accomplished because all anyone could remember was always ending their season with a loss. It’s the Curse of Being Very Good But Not the Best. And it’s not a very fun spell to be afflicted with.

What makes it particularly unfair in the Falcons’ case is that a deeper look at the number suggests that they’ve actually overachieved since Smith and Ryan took over in 2008 – and not by a small margin, either. Looking at Atlanta’s Predictive Yards per Play statistics every year since 2008, the team has never finished higher in the stat’s year-end rankings than eighth, which occurred in 2011 when they went 10-6 and got blown out by the Giants in the Meadowlands in the playoffs. Their year-end ranking every other year suggests a team more likely to finish 8-8 every year and wind up in NFL purgatory than become the second-best regular season team of the last five years: 17th (2008), 16th (2009), 17th (2010) and 16th again last year. With the exception of 2009, when they went 9-7 against one of the toughest schedules in the league and missed the playoffs, Atlanta has won at least 11 games and appeared in the postseason every other year.

Does this mean that Predictive Yards per Play doesn’t know how to accurately rate Atlanta’s ability as a team? Actually, that’s probably not too far away from the truth. Predictive Yards per Play makes a broad assumption that teams that consistently play close games are not significantly better than the opponents they face in those close games. This is because in the long run, most teams’ records in games decided by a touchdown or less will eventually even out to close to .500. Good-to-great teams are usually defined by their ability to dominate an inferior opponent, not sneak away with a three-point victory in the fourth quarter. As a rule, this is a perfectly fine principle to run a statistical system on and it applies to just about every team in the NFL.

The Falcons, however, do not appear to be one of those teams. Since Smith took over as head coach, the Falcons have consistently been one of the least penalized teams in the league, one of the least likely teams to fumble and (perhaps most importantly) one of the most organized teams in the league when it comes to clock management. They typically have strong special teams, they generally don’t leave points on the table – basically, they hardly ever beat themselves, which is an especially strong building block to build a team around in the regular season. Smith hardly ever gets mentioned in discussions debating the best current head coaches, but any list that puts him outside the top five is frankly wrong.

Does this mean the Falcons didn’t enjoy any lucky bounces on the way to their 13-3 record last year? Of course not. They were lucky to get Peyton Manning in his first road game back from injury, they were lucky Ron Rivera didn’t send Cam Newton back out on the field to ice the game away on 4th-and-1 in Week 4, they were lucky to beat Oakland in Week 6 despite being outgained by nearly 200 yards and being even in the turnover battle and they were really lucky that Matt Ryan chose to throw five interceptions in the same game that Ken Whisenhunt decided to debut the Ryan Lindley experience. The fact is, unless your squad is the ’85 Bears or ’07 Patriots, you’re going to need a few breaks to get to 13 wins. That doesn’t mean the Falcons weren’t a good team last year, however.

So the Predictive Yards per Play model treats them as such this year. It assumes Ryan will put up even bigger numbers now that he is squarely in the middle of his prime and that the Falcons defense will remain a mild liability but not enough to keep the team from engaging New Orleans in a battle for the NFC South crown. Subjectively, I think the Falcons’ schedule is tougher than the projection model gives it credit for and that if Carolina and Tampa Bay both improve like their talent level indicates they should, it may be tough for the Falcons to get back to nine wins. Ultimately, though, no one will likely remember what happens to the Falcons this regular season, anyway. It’s Super Bowl or bust at this point. And the “real” games don’t start getting played until January.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
5.356341 8.4375 1.007455 -0.51631 458.6309

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: RB Michael Turner, T Tyson Clabo, T Will Svitek, C Todd McClure

Notable 2013 offseason additions: RB Steven Jackson

Jackson turned 30 on July 22, but his performance the last couple years in St. Louis indicates he probably still has gas left in the tank. Last year, he picked up at least 1000 rushing yards and 270+ receiving yards for the eighth year in a row. He’s a big upgrade over Michael Turner, who’s a year older and completely fell off a cliff last year (making a remarkably resonant thud at the bottom, courtesy of his enormous derriere, when he landed)…Clabo and McClure were both long-time starters along the Falcons offensive line, so there’s some reason to doubt whether Ryan will receive the same level of protection he enjoyed last year. 2012 early-round draft picks Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes were likely selected to be their replacements, however, so given GM Thomas Dimitroff’s track record, the moves probably deserve the benefit of the doubt…The Falcons’ consistency index number of well over 8.00 was the highest in the league last year. Outside of last year, Ryan’s never had a completion percentage above 62.5%, so some regression towards the mean is likely, but it doesn’t change the fact that Atlanta will once again likely be a consistent, chain-moving team in 2013…And perhaps the biggest reasons for that (outside of Ryan) are the Falcons’ superb trio of pass-catchers who have somehow avoided mentioned in this preview to this point. Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez are arguably the best 1-2-3 group of receivers in the league and none can be easily covered 1-on-1. Suffice it to say, if the Falcons score less than 400 points this year, something will have gone terribly, terribly wrong…

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
5.001184 -0.6 0.992545 1.26631 385.4585

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DE John Abraham, CB Brent Grimes, CB Dunta “Sackmasta” Robinson, CB Chris Owens

Notable 2013 offseason additions: DE Osi Umenyiora, CB Desmond Trufant, CB Robert Alford

The ex-Giant Umenyiora replaces long-time sack specialist Abraham in what probably amounts to a lateral move for the Falcons. Abraham’s been more productive over his career, but Umenyiora’s played more snaps over the past few seasons and may be a more consistent every-down presence…Grimes was probably one of the ten best corners in the league before he tore his Achilles in the season-opening game last year and the Falcons never adequately replaced him during the season. Trufant was drafted in the first round to be the bookend corner opposite Asante Samuel, who remains just as much of a riverboat gambler as ever. Alford, the team’s second-round pick this year, will likely see action as Robinson’s replacement at nickel corner…Mike Nolan’s first-year as defensive coordinator last year found the Falcons using as much pre-snap motion and deception as any team in the league. As the year progressed, though, opposing offenses found some of Nolan’s tactics (such as running defensive lineman Kroy Biermann into deep center field as a free safety) to be little more than a novelty and, outside of their shutout against the Giants in Week 15, the Falcons had trouble stopping opponents in the second half of the season.

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 8 @ New Orleans Saints
2 September 15 St. Louis Rams
3 September 22 @ Miami Dolphins
4 September 29 New England Patriots
5 October 7 New York Jets
6 Bye Week
7 October 20 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
8 October 27 @ Arizona Cardinals
9 November 3 @ Carolina Panthers
10 November 10 Seattle Seahawks
11 November 17 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
12 November 21 New Orleans Saints
13 December 1 @ Buffalo Bills
14 December 8 @ Green Bay Packers
15 December 15 Washington Redskins
16 December 23 @ San Francisco 49ers
17 December 29 Carolina Panthers

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: +0.75 points per game harder than average (11th-toughest)

In addition to being the most effective Falcons running back last year, Jacquizz Rodgers also was solid on kick returns, averaging over 25.0 yards per return. Also, his name is Jacquizz, which is pretty freaking awesome…Matt Bryant had a down year by his standards, missing five whole field goals over the course of the year. Any kicker who tells you they don’t want to kick indoors is flat-out lying to you…The season-opening game at New Orleans might end up being the most important of the year when it’s all said and done. Otherwise, the Falcons get some tough home tests against the Patriots and Seahawks but things are pretty manageable until the last four weeks when they get hit with the Packers, Redskins, 49ers and Panthers. If they’re not at least 8-4 heading into that stretch, it’s going to be hard envisioning them making the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 9.9 wins (2nd in NFC South)

Ryan cements his status as one of the top ten quarterbacks in the league and, regardless of how they end up in their battle for the NFC South with New Orleans, the Falcons once again return to the playoffs – where no one will likely bother them and they’ll just be able to play the games in peace.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 9-7 (3rd in NFC South)

Carolina outperforms the projection model’s middling projection for them and shifts the NFC South into a three-team race – a race in which the Falcons are arguably the least talented of the bunch.

 

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