The Falcons are experiencing the ultimate grind year
Injuries have dropped them from “Super Bowl?” to “just stay in the playoff race for now and see what happens.” Update: It happened again, the Falcons bent but didn’t break in a close contest against the New York Giants, winning 23-20. This is the Falcons’ formula for the season. Just how far will it take them? Read on for more on that question! Jameis Winston charged forward from the 20, catching everyone off-guard. A defender finally got in his way around the 10, and he blindly winged the ball to his left, where Adam Humphries briefly picked it up, advanced to the 5, and lost control of the ball. Mike Evans picked it up, jumped 180 degrees, and fired it to DeSean Jackson, who was somehow open at the 5 along the sideline. The pitch was bad, though, and the ball flew out of bounds, ending the game. Tampa Bay had almost pulled off a crazy, miraculous win, but Atlanta had survived, 34-29. We often want to assign meaning — catalyst, beginning of the end, anything that Changed Everything — to crazy finishes like that one. For Atlanta in 2018, though, it was just another game. There is no meaning to the Falcons’ 2018 season this time around, no pieces to fall together. There is only the grind, only the next tricky hurdle in an endless series of them. Atlanta hosts the New York Giants on Monday night with a chance to move to 3-4 for the season. That would put them still 2.5 games behind the Saints in the NFC South race, sure, but it would keep them just a game behind in the race for the final wild card bid. In a vacuum, this is disappointing. The Falcons went 11-5 in 2016 and reached the Super Bowl, then went 10-6 despite the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to the 49ers, coming within a late red zone stop of beating the eventual Super Bowl champions in the playoffs. With what they had returning, it appeared another potential Super Bowl run was in the cards. But then everyone started getting hurt. Linebacker Deion Jones and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, not only three starting defenders, but three of their best starting defenders, are all on injured reserve. So is starting guard Andy Levitre. Running back Devonta Freeman officially joined them last Tuesday, having managed only 14 carries this season to date. Hell, even ageless kicker Matt Bryant is currently hobbled by a hamstring issue. Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports Foye Oluokun has seen far more action than expected as a rookie In college football — at Jones’ LSU, Freeman’s Florida State, or Neal’s Florida, for instance — you might have the depth and raw talent necessary to withstand some bad breaks. In a league so dedicated to parity, however, a run of injuries can be all she wrote. The result of the injuries has been pretty obvious: Atlanta can’t run the ball very well and, with a leaky sieve in the back of the defense, can neither stop the pass nor create passing downs. They’re still good enough, however, to make virtually every game close. They lost at Philadelphia by six in a stout defensive battle, then lost shootouts to the Saints (in overtime) and Bengals (by one). They’ve also narrowly beaten 3-2 Carolina and, again, kept hope alive with the odd last-second thriller over Tampa Bay. They’ve played zero truly good games and only one truly bad one (a 41-17 loss to the Steelers). Atlanta has lost games because of bad drive finishing and won them because of good drive finishing. They’ve lost games with good field position and won games with bad field position. They’ve won games in which they were out-done from an efficiency standpoint and lost them with clear efficiency advantages. Every week the Falcons are a different team with different challenges. Again, this isn’t going to change. And if the injuries continue, the grind is only get grittier. But as long as the Falcons win some of these grinds, they will remain in the playoff chase. So let’s take stock and figure out what the Falcons can and can’t still do well approaching the midpoint of the season. 1. They still take advantage of their opportunities Comparatively speaking, the offense has been far less affected by the run of injuries. They have, after all, managed to 36 or more points and lose twice this season. And despite losing Freeman and Levitre, they are still 11th in Offensive DVOA (sixth in passing) and ninth in the league in scoring. As crazy as it sounds, considering both how last year ended and how this year began, one of the Falcons’ clear strengths has been finishing drives. Since recording a horrid 13 percent red zone success rate and blowing a series of chances against Philadelphia, Atlanta’s been brilliant near the opposing end zone — they have a 58 percent red zone success rate post-Philly, as good a rate as you’ll ever see. Freeman’s injury has opened up opportunity for rookie Ito Smith, and the former Southern Miss Golden Eagle has recorded a 46 percent rushing success rate in the red zone. Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports Ito Smith has been a sturdy red zone option. More importantly, though, Matt Ryan is finding passing windows. Julio Jones remains a decoy — it doesn’t appear he’s even been targeted by a red zone pass since the Philly failure — but since that game, Calvin Ridley has caught five of five red zone passes for 56 yards and four touchdowns, and tight end Austin Hooper has caught three of four for 28 yards and two scores. Running back Tevin Coleman has carried five times for just 10 yards, but he’s also caught three passes for 20 yards and two scores. After calling all the wrong red zone plays from all the wrong formations in Philadelphia, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has spread things out and found immense success. 2. They’re still making big plays Atlanta’s big-play rate during the 2016 run to the Super Bowl was mind-blowing. In open-play situations (snaps between your 10 and your opponent’s 30), the Falcons ripped off 20-yards or more on 10.9 percent of their snaps, and 74.9 percent of their first downs came on either first or second down. Both figures were best in the league. That level of explosiveness is unsustainable, but despite regression, Atlanta’s still making some connections downfield. Jones has nine receptions of 20-plus yards, Ridley has six, Mohamed Sanu has four, and Hooper has two. While picking Ridley in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft didn’t address any specific needs, it did give the Falcons one more weapon than opponents can account for in the passing game, and Ryan and Sarkisian have taken advantage. Ridley’s on pace for nearly 1,000 receiving yards, Sanu’s on pace for 800, and despite no red zone presence whatsoever, Jones is on pace for nearly 2,000. Ryan is completing a career-high 70 percent of his passes (75 percent since Philly) and is on pace for his first 5,000-yard season. Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports Julio Jones: still amazing Granted, the volume comes in part because of deficits and the shaky run game. Still, Atlanta has demanded more of its passing game, and the passing game has responded beautifully. 3. The defense ... isn’t getting burned deep, at least? Look, it’s really hard to find nice things to say about the Atlanta defense. Obviously. That’s what happens when you start out thin and lose maybe your three best players. According to data provided by Sports Info Solutions, Atlanta allowed just a 24 percent success rate and 1.9 yards per play in the 37 snaps it got out of Neal this season. In 68 snaps with Jones, it was a 29 percent success rate and 3.3 yards per play. Without them, and eventually without Allen (204 snaps, 41 percent success rate, 5.6 yards per play), too, it’s been an obvious struggle. Second-year safety Damontae Kazee has gotten far more action than expected and has struggled (316 snaps, 48 percent success rate, 6.4 yards per play), as has rookie linebacker Foye Oluokun (130 snaps, 49 percent success rate, 6.9 yards per play), who, as a Yale standout, was playing against teams like Holy Cross and Columbia this time last year. There aren’t many good tactical options when you are this limited with your personnel, and that goes double when your defensive line has been disappointingly ineffective in terms of both run defense and pass rush. So with their hands tied behind their backs, head coach Dan Quinn and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel have elected to simply go full-on bend-don’t-break. Hey, it works in college sometimes. And it’s ... sort of working in Atlanta? A little bit? Granted, bend-don’t-break can just delay the inevitable if you bend too much, but in their two wins, they have at least managed to hold opponents to 4.1 points per scoring opportunity — not great, but acceptable considering how dominant the offense has been. They forced two turnovers against the Bucs, too. This is how the season has been defined at this point. Of the Five Factors — efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers — the Falcons simply have to try to break even in three and win two (usually finishing drives and either explosiveness or turnovers). It’s possible that can continue. Over the next month, they face visits from the Giants (not good) and Cowboys (not good away from Dallas); win those games and go 1-1 in trips to Washington and Cleveland, and you’re 5-5. The home stretch is dreadful, with road games against New Orleans, Green Bay, Carolina, and Tampa Bay, but hey, in grind seasons, you don’t look more than a week ahead. With Ryan approaching 34 years old, you hate to waste a remaining year of his prime on a grind season, but this is the hand Atlanta’s been dealt. The path to victories is slim but relatively clear; we’ll see how long the Falcons can follow it.
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