The Atlanta Falcons offense that demoralized Seattle Seahawks fans during the 2016 divisional round playoff game 36-20, is gone. Although most of the same personnel remains in place, play-caller Kyle Shanahan decamped for San Francisco and replacement Steve Sarkisian has struggled to match the production of last year’s NFC champion Falcons. Of course, some regression seemed certain for a team that produced an outlying passing performance that had scarcely been seen since the 1930s and 1940s (those weren’t the NFL’s peak passing years at all—which means the variance was wilder and outlier performances in those days even more extreme, relative to average). But in 2017 Atlanta has dropped from scoring nearly 32 offensive points per game to barely 21—a change of more than 34 percent, bumping the Falcons from the class of the league to merely average.
The most mentioned casualty of that scoring drought is Julio Jones, who in five previous healthy seasons averaged between seven and eight touchdowns but has only one so far this year. Jones is nursing a slightly twisted ankle this week and has had hip and back troubles, but being banged up is nothing new for Jones and he has not missed any games in 2017.
Either way, Jones’s excellence last season wasn’t that different from his career standards: The difference was Matt Ryan operating Shanahan’s inventive schemes. As the Falcoholic’s Dave Choate mentioned in his Q&A with Kenneth Arthur, Sarkisian has been criticized for using running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in more traditional ways; both backs combined for 85 receptions in 2016 for 883 yards—in 2017 they are on pace for only 64 catches and 604 yards. That formerly put pressure on defenses having to cover lateral zones while also accounting for Jones and Taylor Gabriel running deeper concepts layered down the field (Freeman won’t play Monday anyway).
But in general, as our friend Ben B mentioned last month, the Falcons offense has remained largely efficient in many categories despite the decline in points produced:
Falcons, drive stats:— Ben Baldwin (@guga31bb) October 25, 2017
2017: 40.7 (#1)
2016: 40.5 (#1)
2017: 31% (best)
2016: 29% (best)
2017: 2.2 (#8)
2016: 3.1 (#1)
Those figures updated for mid-November are not quite as impressive (Atlanta is now third in yards per drive and punts per drive, for example) and the Falcons offensive DVOA is down to 10th from 7th at the time of Ben’s tweet, but as general indicators these rates suggest Atlanta should be scoring more than it has. Ben attributed the discrepancy to red zone efficiency, suggesting the points would come when that performance buoyed back toward the league mean.
After a year when Ryan threw 23 touchdowns on 62 percent passing inside opponents’ 20-yard lines, Ryan has only 10 scores (in nine games) and a 51 percent completion rate in that same territory in 2016. That’s even worse than Russell Wilson (14 touchdowns, 54 percent passing on four more attempts), in an area where Wilson and the Seahawks traditionally struggle. However, while Seattle hasn’t scored any rushing touchdowns from that close, the Falcons have picked up the missing slack with seven red zone scores on the ground—though that’s a pace (12.4) still down from 16 a year ago.
And while that element of Atlanta’s offense did actually climb toward respectability since late October (the Falcons are now the 14th-best red zone attack, up from 27th after week 7 according to Ben, meaning they’re playing like a top 10 team lately) it hasn’t improved the overall scoring rate which remains at 2.15 points per drive (9th in the NFL).
Scott Carasik, the FalconsWire beat reporter, supplied another possible solution to this offensive quirk suggesting the offense hasn’t been the issue at all:
They need more drives. that only comes from defensive turnovers that haven't been there this year.— Scott Carasik (@CarasikS) October 25, 2017
This is a canny explanation, and a plausible answer: Even a month later, Atlanta has held the ball for only 89 offensive possessions all year, fewest in the league.
The Falcons defense only generated eight turnovers so far in 2017, fourth worst in the league. And while they weren’t a great defense in 2016 either Atlanta did take the ball away 22 times which was closer to NFL average. That gives an offense more opportunities to score—although the Falcons defense actually returned five of those turnovers for touchdowns themselves, which actually reduces the number of offensive drives (defensive scoring was subtracted from the points per game figures given at the top). Atlanta’s defense has only contributed one touchdown in 2017. It hasn’t been the same ball hawking unit.
But the Falcons defense in 2016, which was 26th in the NFL in yards allowed per drive, 27th in time of possession given up and 30th in plays per drive, was also slow to get off the field and likewise a big reason Atlanta was third to last in offensive drives in 2016 even while it was the top scoring offense in football. Indeed, what made the Falcons so scary efficient a season ago was their ability to score 99 points more than the next best offense while using so few possessions. So defensive turnovers, or a difference in pace coming from the change to Sarkisian’s philosophies, does not account for the lack of points in this case.
Instead, closer inspection reveals two troubling dynamics for Atlanta.
For one, it’s the Falcons offense turning the ball over more. Ryan has already thrown more interceptions (eight) than he did all last year (seven) and as a result the offense as a whole, which protected the ball on 14 out of every 15 drives last year (second best rate in the NFL), is now giving it away nearly twice as often (21st in the league).
But the most severe issue is probably the downgrade in production on first downs. Atlanta made the most of its limited drives in 2016 by continually advancing the ball down the field. And they did so without being a spectacular third down team—the Falcons were only 11th in third down efficiency; they’re converting at about the same rate (42 percent) in 2017. What Atlanta was really good at last year was avoiding third downs entirely by being really, really good on first downs—Bill Barnwell called them the best first down offense in history.
The Falcons were able to generate an absurd 7.6 yards per play on first down (excluding kneeldowns)—almost a whole yard better than any other team—and 31.4 percent of those plays resulted in another first down (also best in the league by 4.5 percentage points). That means the offense didn’t have to “manufacture” new sets of downs. Almost a third of the time they just materialized out of Kyle Shanahan’s will. When they didn’t immediately gain another first down, they converted the second down another 37 percent of the time. That means 57 percent of the time Atlanta didn’t even have to worry about its third down conversion rate (and 75 percent of all first downs yielded another first down or touchdown at some point).
This year the Falcons still rock with one of the best first down offenses: They’re still the best in yards per play (6.8) and second in first down rate on those plays (26.6). It’s just not a historically great offense anymore, whether caused by lack of execution or Sarkisian’s schemes or play calls. And erosion in those percentages compounds to produce more second downs, third downs and more chances to punt or kick field goals or turn the ball over—few offenses can afford the cost of an extra yard on average nearly every series of downs, no matter how dynamic. Plus the scarcity of defensive turnovers has left Atlanta with the worst average starting field position in football.
So all these factors conspire to make the Falcons scoreboard output look a lot more like 2015 or 2014 versions than the juggernaut of 2016. The Seattle defense, though not its peak self from its Super Bowl runs either, has played closer to its performance of a year ago—it’s still fourth in red zone percentage for example—although we are yet to see the latest edition of that group either, after all the injuries in the Arizona Cardinals game. This matchup on Monday Night Football then may not be the high powered showdown circled when the schedule came out in April, but with Atlanta’s offensive struggles it could be a better opportunity after all for the Seahawks to extract revenge for the playoff elimination.