Do The Atlanta Falcons Deserve More Respect As Super Bowl Contenders?
by 29 December 2016, 11:05 AM
Are the Falcons worthy Super Bowl contenders?
The Atlanta Falcons have won four out of their last five games. They defeated Arizona at home by 19, the Rams on the road by 28, the 49ers at home by 28, and the Panthers on the road by 17. Thrown in there was a hard fought 29-28 loss at home to the Chiefs. The Falcons put up more points than anyone else in football during that span and put themselves in position to earn a first round bye.
And yet, there has been minimal conversation in the media about how good of a team Atlanta is. All of the attention in the NFC is being directed towards Dallas, the Giants, Green Bay, and Seattle. This is partly due to the general blandness of the Falcons franchise, but it also has to do with the fact that people don’t respect the Falcons as a true Super Bowl contender. Should this be the case? The answer to that question is no, that should not be the case — people should absolutely respect the Falcons as a Super Bowl contender.
The Falcons’ offense alone should gain the team plenty of respect from fans and the media. The offense ranks first in points per game (33.5), second in yards per game (412.5), and first in offensive DVOA according to Football Outsiders. Its 33.5 points per game is the highest per game average since the 2013 Denver Broncos. This offense is led by Matt Ryan, who is having a MVP caliber season, ranking near the top in several categories.
|Ranking||3rd (69.5%)||3rd (4,615)||3rd (34)||4th (34/7)||1st (115.5)|
The great depth of talent on this year’s team is what has allowed Ryan to perform this way and make this offense even better than the Ryan-led Falcon offenses of the past. Notice the word “depth” because that is a key difference between this offense and the great 2012 Falcons’ offense that averaged 26.2 points per game.
In 2012, the offense was completely centered around the three Pro Bowl-caliber weapons in Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez. Those three guys were the only ones to have more than one receiving touchdown during the regular season. This season, the Falcons have 10 different players who have caught more than one touchdown in the regular season.
Because of this diversity, the passing game has been difficult to defend. It ultimately starts with Julio Jones leading the way, catching 76 passes for 1,313 yards and five touchdowns. In free agency, the team signed former Bengals receiver Mohamed Sanu, who has caught 55 balls for 621 yards and three touchdowns as the No. 2 wide receiver. Behind Jones and Sanu in the depth chart you have the electric Taylor Gabriel, whose ability to stretch the field has dramatically helped the Falcons’ offense.
Having a player like Gabriel is great because it gives the offense the opportunity to hit on big plays. The opposing defense now has to worry about Gabriel, which opens up chances for other receivers. Atlanta is tied for second in the league with 41 pass plays that gained 25 yards or more, which is 14 more than they had all of last season.
Jones, Sanu, and Gabriel are the main targets for Ryan, but having seven other players catch multiple touchdowns on the season speaks to the depth of talent this Falcons team has at the skill positions. Having several threats helps tremendously in the red zone because opposing defenses will have a harder time predicting who will be the target. Here is an example of tight end Austin Hooper catching a touchdown in the red zone:
With Jones double-teamed, every other option Ryan has is being single covered in man to man coverage. The fact that he ends up throwing to Hooper on a slant for a touchdown shows you how hard to defend the offense is. Hooper is seventh on the team in receiving yards, so this play represents the element of unpredictability with this offense. It also shows how deep the talent is where the seventh-leading receiver on the team can beat a decent coverage safety in Bradley McDougald for a touchdown. Here is another example with fifth-string receiver Justin Hardy:
It is first and goal at the three-yard line and the only receiver Atlanta has outside the numbers is Hardy. This is a formation that screams run. But what does Atlanta do? They run a play action fake and Ryan shows trust in Hardy to beat his man one-on-one and Hardy delivers.
Hardy and Hooper are just two examples of low level receiving options making plays. Aldrick Robinson, Jacob Tamme, Levine Toilolo, Devonta Freeman, and Tevin Coleman have all had a similar impact. Speaking of Freeman and Coleman, lets discuss the Falcons’ running game.
Ever since Ryan’s rookie year, the Falcons have always struggled to run the ball. From 2009-2015 the Falcons ranked 18th (4.2), 26th (3.8), 21st (4.0), 29th (3.7), 24th (3.9), 21st (4.0), and 25th (3.8) in yards per carry. An inability to run the ball has put a ton of pressure on Matt Ryan to carry the offense and that is ultimately why the Falcons have fallen short of their goals. This season, the Falcons are 10th in yards per carry at 4.5 with the same running backs in Freeman and Coleman. So what’s the difference between this year and last year? The answer to that is the offensive line play.
Left guard Andy Levitre continues to prove the Falcons right for trading a sixth round pick for him a year ago. He is ranked by Pro Football Focus as the seventh-best run blocking guard in football with a grade of 84.1/100. Ryan Schraeder has become one of the best in the NFL at his position, and this season he is ranked by PFF as the fifth-best run blocking tackle with a grade of 86.9/100.
But the guy who’s making the ultimate difference upfront is former Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack. Mack has shown off his great ability quickly getting to the second level of the defense and making the correct block:
Alex Mack, the C for the Falcons, has been crushing it this season. He has excellent balance, power through his hips and finish. Enjoy this pic.twitter.com/iihwC9QTz9— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) December 20, 2016
Mack is ranked by PFF as the best run blocking center in football with a grade of 90/100. With this rushing attacking combined with the passing offense Atlanta has this season, they are more equipped to have success in the playoffs than ever before, and are less likely to become one dimensional in the playoffs like they have in the past.
|2008 wild card game: 30-24 loss at Arizona||Passing Attempts: 40 |
Rushing Attempts: 20
|2010 divisional round game: 48-21 loss vs Green Bay||PA: 29|
|2011 wild card game: 24-2 loss at the Giants||PA: 41|
|2012 divisional round game: 30-28 win vs Seattle||PA: 35|
|2012 NFC championship game: 28-24 loss vs 49ers||PA: 42|
Unlike the previous playoff games, Atlanta won’t need to rely completely on Ryan to carry the Falcons’ offense in the playoffs. With an effective running game, Ryan can be more efficient and the offense will be harder to defend.
As far as the Falcons’ defense goes, there is no way to sugarcoat it; they aren’t very good. They rank towards the bottom of the league in several statistical categories.
|Stat:||Yards allowed per game:||Points allowed per game||Opponents 3rd down conversion rate||Opponent Passer|
|Ranking:||23rd (364.3)||25th (24.9)||25th (41.6)||22nd (93.2)||27th|
Without star corner Desmond Trufant, it will be even harder for the Falcons’ defense to be successful. However, since 2009 when the rules started to change to favor the offense, five out of seven teams that led the league in scoring advanced to the conference title game. And, the two that didn’t make it (2011 Packers and 2010 Patriots) lost as huge favorites in the divisional round.
So with that type of offense, it shouldn’t matter if the defense is ranked towards the bottom of the league. For example, the 2009 Saints (won Super Bowl), 2012 Patriots (reached AFC title game) and 2013 Broncos (reached Super Bowl) all ranked 20th or lower in yards allowed per game.
Overall, with this offense, the Falcons should be getting a lot more respect as a Super Bowl contender. With signature franchises such as the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and Green Bay Packers as contenders in the NFC it is understandable why the media is glossing over the less popular Atlanta Falcons. However, people need to start paying much closer attention to this team because they are worthy of everyone’s attention and respect, and just might be headed to Houston in February.
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