Falcons vs. Dolphins: Tua or No, Dolphins Gotta Go

The 2-3 Falcons face the 1-5 Dolphins in a game that feels like a make-or-break moment for both teams. As I’ve covered in my Q1 Falcons review, Atlanta has slowly, but steadily, improved over the last three weeks. Having settled into a rhythm on offense and coming off of a bye week, Atlanta heads into this game rested, relatively healthy, and ready to build on their recent successes.

Miami, despite a talented roster, is trending in the opposite direction. They surrendered their fifth loss to a hapless Jaguars team in London a week ago. Curiously, the team opted against the traditional bye week following an international game, leaving them banged up and searching for answers.

In a stunning reversal of fortune, Brian Flores has gone from a Coach of the Year candidate to the coaching hot seat in six short weeks. Injuries, underperforming players, and questionable coaching decisions have brought Miami to a point where they have to win this week or accept that the 2021 season is lost. 

Dolphins Sink or Swim with Their Defense

Atlanta struggled to move the ball early in the season, but have started to find their way since their Week 4 game against Washington. Incremental improvements along the offensive line leading to vastly improved play from Matt Ryan have fans feeling confident the offense can begin to reach their full potential this season. The Falcons will need to build on their recent successes to get there, and this Miami defense looks like a perfect stepping stone.

Miami was one of the better defenses in the NFL last season. They finished 11th in DVOA, 7th in EPA/play, and 16th in total success rate in 2020. There has been a precipitous drop in those metrics this season. The Dolphins have slid to 26th in DVOA, 27th in EPA/play, and 23rd in success rate. Injuries have sapped some of this team’s potential, but miscues in coverage have been a significant hindrance regardless of the starting roster.

Despite a solid season from Emmanuel Ogbah, the Dolphins haven’t been effective at pressuring opposing QB’s. They haven’t been a complete disaster against the run, but they still find themselves in the bottom third of the league in yards allowed and EPA/play. In short, there are few true strengths to point to for Miami defensively. 

Injuries May Hamper Any Hopes of a Turnaround for Miami

Dolphins Injury Report 8/20

The Dolphins had six defensive players listed as “limited-participants” in their Wednesday walk-through. This designation means a bit less since the Dolphins didn’t work at full speed, but the continued presence of starting corners Xavian Howard and Byron Jones on the injury report is worth monitoring.

Both players missed last week’s game against the Jaguars, which coincided with Trevor Lawrence’s best performance as a pro so far. Generally a man coverage defense, Miami shifted to a zone-heavy philosophy and looked out of sorts for most of the game. It will be interesting to see what adjustments Miami makes this week if their star corners can’t go.

The Falcons’ best offensive production has come when faced with man coverage this season. Seeing the lack of depth at receiver for the Falcons, the Jets opted for a heavy dose of man coverage and paid dearly for it. Atlanta was similarly able to gash Washington in Week 4.

Otherwise, teams have decided to stay in zone coverage, comfortable with their ability to rush Ryan and keep the offense bottled up, and in general, it’s worked. In this instance, it may play to the Dolphins’ favor if injuries force them to rely on zone coverage. However, considering the painful breakdowns they suffered in zone last week, it’s not a particularly rosy picture either way.

Miami Has a Matchup Problem

With Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage on track to play, the Falcons will have more options at their disposal than they’ve had in weeks. Coupled with the rising confidence in Kyle Pitts and the emergence of Cordarrelle Patterson as an elite playmaker, Atlanta has the weapons to stress passing defenses at multiple levels. In theory, Miami has enough chess pieces to match up, but it hasn’t seemed to work out that way for them this season.

Eric Rowe has a reputation for being a “tight-end eraser,” but his snap counts have dwindled over the last few weeks. If the Week 3 matchup against Darren Waller is any indication, Byron Jones may draw the assignment against Kyle Pitts, if healthy. Assuming Xavien Howard suits up, he’ll be responsible for Calvin Ridley, a rematch after facing off in joint practices (that Ridley seemingly dominated) in training camp.

This still leaves the question of who will take Russell Gage and Cordarrelle Patterson. Even if fully healthy, Atlanta poses a tough matchup if Miami wants to rely on man coverage. A banged-up secondary may make that impossible.

It Still Starts Up Front for Atlanta’s Offense 

It seems, in theory at least, Miami’s best hope for limiting the Falcons offense is to get to Matt Ryan early and often. The Eagles and Bucs dominated the line of scrimmage against Atlanta and cruised to easy victories. Both teams exploited the young, inexperienced Falcons interior, leaving Matt Ryan to pay the price.

However, Jalen Mayfield and Matt Hennessey are steadily improving, and the offense is picking up steam behind them. Ryan, who looked cooked through the first two weeks, has since strung together two games reminiscent of his MVP season. 

The key to shutting down the Falcons offense is evident: hit Ryan and make him uncomfortable. If Ryan faces pressure early, it speeds up his internal clock, and he starts to miss open plays downfield in favor of early check-downs. The Jets allowed Ryan to settle in, and even though they managed to pressure him through the second half, he succeeded in maneuvering in the pocket and making throws. Early pressures are the key. 

McGary Out, Spriggs In

Miami has a reasonably strong chance of achieving substantial pressure on Matt Ryan. Kaleb McGary, Atlanta’s primary starter at right tackle, was placed on the COVID/reserved list early in the week, and though there is a slight chance he may return, all indications are that Jason Spriggs will step in for him on Sunday. It’s an unfortunate turn for an offensive line that looked like it was starting to gel after an incredibly rough start to the season. 

Spriggs, though undersized, was a steady swing tackle for the Packers from 2016-2018. He missed 2019 with an injury and struggled in limited snaps after moving to Chicago in 2020. Spriggs is an adequate pass blocker but, being undersized, struggles with powerful pass rushers. He is likely to see a heavy dose of Emmanuel Ogbah on Sunday, a matchup that is likely to be very troublesome for the Falcons. Kaleb McGary hasn’t exactly established himself as an outstanding tackle, but his absence will be something to watch. 

The success or failure of the Falcons’ offense hinges on their offensive line play. Atlanta ranks as one of the worst rushing teams in every metric imaginable. It’s probably too much to ask for this group to suddenly become an excellent run-blocking unit. That shifts the burden to the passing game.

Keeping Ryan clean, especially early, is the best hope for continued success. This offensive line already has to account for less-than-stellar play from its center and left guard. Trying to also account for weakness at right tackle may prove to be more than this offense can absorb. Arthur Smith will need to conjure the same magic from 2020 that helped the Titans overcome a below-average offensive line.

Who is the QB in Miami?

Atlanta’s defense has shown, in spurts at least, that they can do enough to win games. It would be a stretch to characterize them as average, but they are good enough to shut down bottom-of-the-barrel offenses. Despite Miami falling into the category of “awful,” there is an argument that Tua Tagovailoa is good enough to lift them out of the gutter when he’s healthy.

That argument may be null and void by the weekend, should the rumors the Dolphins are closing in on a deal with Houston for Deshaun Watson prove to be true. It’s unclear how soon Watson would be able to take the helm, but, certainly, he wouldn’t be ready to play by Sunday.

Should a trade materialize, that leaves Jacoby Brissett as the presumptive starter, making this week’s matchup considerably more favorable for Atlanta. Brisset can lead an offense if the pieces around him are top-rate, but the Dolphins struggles in the run game, and pass protection is treading into meme territory. 

Weakness on Weakness

That’s not to say the Falcons have been effective rushing the passer, but the gamble Miami made on its young offensive linemen hasn’t paid off, and their offense is floundering as a result. They’ve shuffled players to different positions looking to find a grouping that works, but, for now, it’s been a fruitless endeavor. Despite Dante Fowler’s recent appearance on the injury report, I feel confident the Falcons can get the best of this offensive line. 

If Tagovalioa is on the roster, the calculus changes a bit. Tua, despite less than ideal arm strength, is much more effective at pushing the ball downfield. His average intended air yards per attempt is a full yard higher than Brissett’s. Though Philadelphia found quite a bit of success against Atlanta in the short passing game, the Falcons have been much better defending the dink-and-dunk approach since.

Despite Miami’s insistence on turning deep threats like Jaylen Waddle into possession receivers, if the Dolphins can’t generate explosive plays in the passing game, they will struggle to score points on any defense, even Atlanta’s.

The Forgotten Run Game

I haven’t mentioned much about either team’s run game, and for a good reason. Neither team has a run game worth mentioning. I know my writing this almost certainly guarantees one of these teams will explode this week, but history is on my side here. Miami ranks 32nd in rushing yards. Atlanta has been more productive on the ground, but finds itself alongside Miami as a bottom-five team in rushing DVOA.

The one appreciable difference is Atlanta’s willingness to stick to the run game. Miami ranks last in carries. Despite playing one less game than most of the teams in the NFL, Atlanta is 24th. You can expect Atlanta to try to establish the run, but it’s a stretch to expect them to be overly effective. If either team suddenly finds a run game, it will become the turning point in the game. However, the outcome likely comes down to which quarterback has the better game. 

Dink and Dunk or Get It in Chunks

Predicting a winner for this week isn’t easy. These are two underperforming teams with far more questions on their rosters than answers. The winner of this game is likely to be whichever team finds a way to generate explosive plays, something neither team has done consistently so far.

It seems, on paper at least, Atlanta is better situated to do so. They are healthy; Dante Fowler Jr. and Kaleb McGary are the only two players who haven’t participated in practice this week. A bye week has presumably given Arthur Smith additional time to self-scout and tweak his offense. Kyle Pitts is coming off his breakthrough game, and Calvin Ridley is rejoining the team this week. 

On the other hand, Miami is a team with glaring uncertainty at the quarterback position. A quarter of their team is on the injury report. Brian Flores saw a raft of coaching assistants make lateral moves to other teams in the offseason, suggesting a lack of confidence in him. Now it appears the team and fanbase are losing faith as well. Miami is a team that’s on the ropes, one solid punch away from going down for the count. 

You Know What That Means!

If you’re a long-time Falcons fan, you know what that means. Atlanta is going to lose this game convincingly. By some miracle, the Dolphins will find a run game. Tua Tagovailoa (or Jacoby Brissett) will morph into Joe Montana — it happened to us once already — and Emmanuel Ogbah will set the single-game sack record. 

Is this needlessly pessimistic? Perhaps. Am I saying all this because the Falcons only win games I pick them to lose? Couldn’t say. I can tell you that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Final Prediction: Miami 27 – Atlanta 17

Atlanta Falcons Q1 Review: Defensive Line

Falcons Defensive Line
Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With the Atlanta Falcons in a bye week, I am taking a moment to review the performance of each position group so far. I’ve already covered quarterback, the offensive line, and the skill position players. Today I’m turning my attention to the other side of the ball, starting with the defensive line.

Before I dive into player-specific analysis, I want to share a few team defensive statistics that will set the table for this article and the upcoming articles on the linebackers and defensive backs.

Team Total Defense Stats

Atlanta Falcons Defensive Production per Pro Football Reference

Defensive Advanced Metrics

Advanced Defensive Metrics per rbsdm.com

As you can see, the Falcons haven’t been a particularly efficient defense. The raw yardage totals are better than they’ve been in years. However, raw production statistics can hide significant deficiencies. Instead, if you look at DVOA, EPA, or Success Rate, it becomes crystal clear that this defense hasn’t been overly effective.

The 2020 Atlanta Falcons defense set the bar so low it would be near impossible to perform worse. Having that as a reference point, the 2021 squad has actually been an improvement. Dean Pees is a legendary defensive coordinator. The feeling is it will only be a matter of time before Atlanta has a respectable defensive unit. There have been brief flashes, but this group is pieced together with primarily journeymen and late-round draft picks. Pees is a great coach, but he’s not a magician.

The Falcons defensive line is probably the weakest defensive group for the Atlanta Falcons. Since the departure of John Abraham, Atlanta has failed to find an edge rusher to fill his shoes. Grady Jarrett is a superstar, but there is only so much he can do on his own. It hasn’t been a complete disaster, but this isn’t anything approaching a fearsome defensive line. Let’s take a look at the pass-rushing statistics (per PFF) of every lineman (defined as IDL/Edge) that’s collected a QB pressure in 2021.

2021 Falcons Defensive Line Pass Rushing Stats

Atlanta Falcons Pass Rusher Stats per Pro Football Focus

Dante Fowler Jr. Flourishes After Flop

Fowler signed a massive $15 million per year contract with the Falcons in 2020. As most big-money free agents tend to do in Atlanta, he fell flat on his face. Lingering injuries sapped his athleticism and adjusting to life without Aaron Donald proved to be a challenge Fowler couldn’t overcome. Ultimately he earned $5 million for each of his three sacks, falling grossly short of what Thomas Dimitroff envisioned when he was signed.

The newly hired Terry Fontenot wasted no time renegotiating that albatross of a contract. He voided the 2022 season and converted most of Fowler’s 2021 contract to incentives tied to his sack production. It gave the cash-strapped Falcons much-needed cap relief. It also provided Fowler the means to earn back his money on the way to another shot at free agency. Everyone wins.

Fowler is Incentivized

Fowler appears to be making the most of this opportunity so far this season. He’s easily been the best of a bad group of pass rushers in Atlanta. He hasn’t been uber-productive, but he’s already totaled a pair of sacks and forced fumbles through five games. Per PFF, his pass-rush win rate (one of the best indicators of value added from pass rushers) indicated he hasn’t been particularly efficient. Of players with at least 60 pass-rush snaps, he ranks 70th in the NFL with a 14.1% win rate. His 13 total pressures are the 54th most for qualifying defensive linemen.

These aren’t particularly inspiring statistics, but he’s made timely plays as a pass rusher and run defender. His fourth-quarter sack of Daniel Jones set the Falcons up for their first win of the season. The difference in his performance between last year and this year is night and day. He isn’t dominant, but he is a disruptive force if opposing teams don’t account for him. That’s not the output we hoped for when he arrived in Atlanta, but, as with everything Falcons this year, we are looking for progress, not perfection.

Fowler has been surprisingly effective against the run, leading the Falcons defensive line with nine tackles with an average depth of tackle of 1.9 yards. He plays out of control at times and finds himself on the ground more often than he should, but his burst is clearly on a different level than the other edge defenders on the roster. Each sack he notches this season complicated the salary cap for the team in 2022, but it’s worth it knowing the defense has a chance to get off the field on third down. His improved play and how the team approaches him in the offseason will be a compelling storyline to track this year.

Grady Jarrett Following in His Father’s Footsteps

Much like there must always be a Stark in Winterfell, the Falcons must always have an elite defensive talent wasting away on a bad team. Jesse Tuggle held that honor for over a decade, and now, twenty years later, his son has assumed the mantle. Jarrett has earned universal respect from fans and pundits alike, but Atlanta has never been able to surround him with enough support to capitalize on his immense potential. Jarrett continues to toil away, playing at an elite level even if his raw production isn’t always reflective of his ability.

Grady isn’t quite as dominant as he’s been over the last few years in production and advanced metrics. In 2020, he had a pass rush win rate of 15.2% and averaged roughly 3.5 pressures per game. So far this season, he’s posted a win rate of 12.3% and is averaging 2.2 pressures a game. This dip isn’t a sign of declining play. Turn on the tape, and his skill is evident. However, with no other real threats playing next to him, teams are free to focus solely on him. As good as Grady is, there is no way for him to defeat an offense single-handedly.

Despite the singular focus from offensive coordinators, Grady still manages to make his presence know. He’s notched a sack and ties Fowler for the most tackles along the line. His average depth of tackle is 2.6 yards, comparable to the other elite defensive tackles in the NFL. He’s played an outsized role in limiting Daniel Jones and the Giants’ offense in week 3, paving the way for the Falcons to grab their first win.

The Falcons aren’t likely to find a clear solution to their pass rush problems this season, but if Atlanta makes any progress, it will start with Jarrett’s game-wrecking ability inside. Let’s all hope Fontenot finds ways to help him while he’s still here.

Ogundeji Has Earned More Playing Time on the Falcons Defensive Line

The Falcons drafted Adetokunbo Ogundeji late in the 2021 draft. At best, most expected him to be a deep reserve, with a redshirt season as a healthy scratch as his most likely role with the team. However, he flashed enough potential in the preseason to earn his way onto the active roster in week one and has played in every game since. He’s had a limited role, playing behind Fowler and Means, but has been the go-to player as the third man in the rotation.

He’s taken advantage of his opportunities, earning a team-high 16.7% pass rush win rate and notching a sack. Despite the small sample size, he’s outplayed every edge rusher aside from Fowler, and I suspect we’ll see his usage get ramped up as we move further into the year.

He isn’t overly athletic, but his length and strength set him apart from the other edge defenders on the roster. His inexperience shows at times, but the only way to get him up to speed is to give him snaps. His efficiency ratings are likely to drop with higher usage, but the disparity between him and Steven Means is apparent. At this point, limiting his snaps limits the defense. Give the rook the extra time!

The Leftovers

The rest of this defensive unit ranges from below-average to god-awful. I do my best to avoid disparaging our players too much, but it isn’t easy to find many positives to mention. Steven Means is likely the best of the rest, despite leading the edge defenders in pass-rushing snaps while only registering seven pressures. His 7.8% pass rush win rate is, to put it politely, sub-optimal. He’s been up and down in the run game, alternating between blowing his run fits entirely and dragging ball carriers down at the line of scrimmage.

Confusingly, Dean Pees continues to drop him into coverage an excessive amount of time, where he is a complete liability. Means is a consummate professional, but he is better as a rotational piece and special teams ace. The sooner the Falcons can move away from using him as a starter, the better.

From Bad to Worse for the Falcons Defensive Line

Johnathan Bullard and Ta’Quon Graham round out the primary rotational players. Neither has proven to be huge liabilities, but neither is really moving the needle either. Graham only found his way to the field over the last couple of weeks, so there is a chance he develops into more of a threat as time passes. Still, Bullard and Graham have a total of nine tackles and three QB pressures so far. It’s reasonable to assume a massive leap from either isn’t particularly likely this season.

Tyeler Davison, the other “starter” along the interior, is easily the most replaceable player on the roster. He’s routinely blow off the line against the run and has been utterly invisible as a pass rusher. His 47.3 run defense grade is the lowest among players on the Falcons defensive line.With a 1.2% pass rush win rate, they may be better off setting up a strong box fan in his place. Maybe the breeze would dry out the opposing QB’s eyes.

Unmet Expectations

Marlon Davidson and John Cominsky are two players Falcons fans expected more from this season. Cominsky has been a healthy scratch lately, while Davidson has been hampered with injury most of the season. There is an argument that Cominsky has been miscast as a nose tackle, but if the coaches repeatedly choose to play Johnathan Bullard over Cominsky every week, that has to carry some weight.

For Marlon, this is the second consecutive season that injuries have kept him from seeing the field. It’s too early to write him off as an injury bust, but he has yet to live up to the pedigree we were sold on when he was drafted in the second round.

That leaves one final player to mention, and I saved him for last because he’s one of my favorite Falcons. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner initially won me over with excellent special teams play. Since, he’s found ways to be productive as a pass rusher when given opportunities. He is tied with Dante Fowler for the most sacks on the team, despite only seeing a quarter of the pass-rushing snaps. Am I here to convince you JTM is a world-class player that just needs a shot? No, I’m not delusional.

However, he has always found his way into the backfield when given opportunities. The other players ahead of him aren’t exactly DPOY candidates. I hardly see the harm in giving him more opportunities. It’s a homer stance for me, but I love an underdog who’s shown he’ll put in the dirty work. Give the kid a shot.

Playing (and Praying) for 2022

This group of defensive linemen is the weak link on a bad defense. There isn’t much to work with on this roster despite Dean Pees’ ability to scheme his teams into pressure. Grady Jarrett and Dante Fowler are doing yeoman’s work, but unless one of the young players on the roster can emerge as a complementary piece, this unit will be a constant liability this year. Good defenses are excellent in coverage or rushing the passer; great defenses can do both. Atlanta can’t do either effectively. We knew this group would be a work in progress, but we haven’t witnessed much forward motion aside from minimal gains.

My biggest fear isn’t the lack of pass rush either. The Falcons have one of the highest rushing success rates allowed this season. It hasn’t been the reason for a loss yet, but if a team decides to lean on their run game, I am confident the Falcons defensive line will struggle to contain it. This team needs to add size, power, and explosiveness to its defensive front. Depending on undersized linebackers to perform well when the defensive interior can’t control the line of scrimmage is futile. Expecting a shaky secondary to cover with zero pass rush support is a recipe for disaster.

Luckily, aside from the Bills, Bucs, and Cowboys, the Falcons don’t have any dominant offenses on the upcoming schedule. Hopefully, the coaches can use this season to build up some young depth before Fontenot invests heavily in rebuilding an incredibly sub-par unit.

Atlanta Falcons Q1 Review: Linebackers & Safeties

Falcons Linebackers
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Falcons have the week off, and I’m taking advantage of the downtime to review the team’s performance over the first quarter of the season. Today I’ll be looking at the Falcons defense, the linebackers and safeties specifically. Feel free to get caught up on anything you’ve missed below.

Linebacker Was Supposed to Be a Competitive Advantage

There weren’t many position groups for the 2021 Falcons defense you could single out as strengths to start the year. The lone exception was at off-ball linebacker. Deion Jones has established himself as a playmaker, despite consecutive lackluster seasons.

Additionally, Foye Oluokun emerged as a rare bright spot from the 2020 season. Even Mykal Walker flashed in the few opportunities he was as a rookie. There was an argument to be made that Atlanta had one of the best off-ball linebacker groups in the NFL. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Falling Short of the Hype

Despite the high expectations, this linebacker corps hasn’t lived up to their potential. Missed tackles, blown assignments, and breakdowns in coverage have plagued the duo. The grades and stats from PFF paint a crystal clear picture.

PFF Grades

per PFF

PFF Stats

per PFF

Looking for Deion to Recapture the Magic

Despite a reputation for being an excellent coverage linebacker Deion Jones has struggled so far. PFF lists him as allowing a reception on 95.5% of his targets. Granted, the Falcons defense has leaned heavily on zone coverage, essentially conceding short throws. This strategy works if the defenders can rally to the ball and make the stop. Unfortunately, this hasn’t quite panned out for the Falcons so far. Jones has the second-highest total of YAC allowed in the NFL.

The Falcons coaches moved Deion Jones to WILL over the offseason to, in part, take pressure off of him in the run game. Jones is incredibly athletic, but playing through contact isn’t a strength, and any measures to free him up to have a clear path to the ball carrier should create an advantage. Sounds great in theory, but it hasn’t generated results either.

Jones isn’t near the top of the league in missed tackles, but a missed tackle percentage of 11.4% is less than ideal. After reviewing the film, that number might be even higher if he hit his assignments against the run. As we established in the defensive line review, the Falcons defense has allowed one of the highest rushing success rates in the NFL.

Part of the issue is blown assignments, a trend for Jones. It’s hard to tell if it’s attributable to confusion about the scheme, or whether he’s trying to play hero ball. Either way, unless Jones can play more disciplined football, it’s hard to envision this defense taking a step forward.

Foye Adjusting to the Middle

The same criticisms can be leveled at Foye Oluokun. He hasn’t been as undisciplined as Jones, but there are “oh no” moments on the tape for him too. He’s had similar struggles in coverage, though he has been targeted less and hasn’t allowed nearly as many yards after the catch. The most consistent issue I’ve seen from Foye so far is his struggle to get proper depth when tasked with covering the deep third in Tampa 2. This issue was particularly evident against the Bucs in week 2. Tom Brady routinely attacked the area behind Foye for significant gains.

They Haven’t Been Done Any Favors

We can explain away some of these issues for the linebackers. Their teammates aren’t doing them any favors, and it makes life difficult for them. Foye’s tendency to be slow in his drops in coverage may be due to the lack of trust he has in the line to bottle up the threat of a run on play-action.

Both Oluokun and Jones are finding themselves in positions where they have to take on offensive linemen because the defensive tackles can’t hold up against double teams. The entire defense must work in concert to be effective, and breakdowns on the line can make it impossible for linebackers to succeed.  

There is a learning curve associated with learning Dean Pees’ defense to consider as well. Both Deion and Foye are learning new positions in an unfamiliar defense that asks a lot from them. It takes time to learn the system, as Dean Pees made abundantly clear in a press conference earlier this season. I suspect we’ll see a better unit as the season progresses. 

Up and Down Play From the Safeties

The Falcons completely rebuilt their safety room over the offseason, parting ways with long-time starters in Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, and Demontae Kazee. NFL journeymen Duron Harmon, and Erik Harris, were brought in on one-year rental deals to stabilize the position in the short term. It’s been a mixed bag so far, but there are a few glimmers of hope from this bunch.

Falcons Safety Stats

Harris and Harmon Keep the Seat Warm

I was guardedly optimistic about the signing of Duron Harmon in the offseason. Aside from a rocky year in Detroit, Harmon has been a steady presence in the defensive backfield for his entire career. No one will mistake him for an all-pro, but the Falcons defense hasn’t had consistency at safety in years. Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out quite as well as I’d envisioned.

Harmon is allowing a career-high 72.7% completion rate when targeted and has surrendered 13.4 yards per reception. Those aren’t the worst numbers in the NFL, but they are comfortably in the bottom third. If PFF grading is your thing, Harmon ranks 76th of 85 qualifying safeties with an overall grade of 49.5.

Despite the terrible grades and stats, I haven’t seen him get routinely slaughtered on tape like Damontae Kazee or Ricardo Allen were over the last few years. He looks slow to react at times and out of position more often than a veteran of his stature should, but I expect him to clean up the mental mistakes as the season progresses.

Harris Surprises Early

Erik Harris, on the other hand, has been a PFF darling so far. He was ranked 7th of 85 qualifying safeties before his recent injury with a 73.3 overall grade. Were it not for a pair of dropped interceptions, he’d likely be ranked even higher. The former Raider is giving up receptions at a slightly slower clip than Harmon, but he’s been more active as a blitzer and against the run, which buoys his grading.

I had meager expectations for Harris, and all things considered, he’s far exceeded them. He’s lived up to the expectations I had for Harmon. He’s been a steady presence, even if he’s given up a few plays downfield. 

A Youth Movement at Safety for the Falcons Defense?

Though we all expected Richie Grant to figure into the picture at safety, he hasn’t received any regular-season snaps at the position. He did find his way to the field against the Jets, but he was used as a nickel corner. It shouldn’t come as a shock, that was the role he played in the preseason. It will be interesting to see how the coaches deploy him as the season progresses.

Jaylinn Hawkins is the only other player to log any snaps at safety, per PFF’s charting. In week five, he earned his first start in relief of the injured Erik Harris and made the most of the opportunity. He graded out as one of the best players on the field. Snagging an errant pass from Zac Wilson boosted his grade significantly, but there wasn’t any drop off with him in the lineup otherwise.

It was clear the coaching staff was high on him in training camp, and he is one of the few younger players they’ve found ways to incorporate from week to week. It appears Erik Harris remains limited coming out of the bye, so Hawkins may get another opportunity to secure more snaps moving forward. 

Falcons Defense Keeping an Eye on the Future

The chances of Erik Harris and Duron Harmon returning in 2022 aren’t incredibly high. Much will depend on the development of Hawkins and Grant. However, with many empty roster spots looming, the faster younger players can step up, the better. Harris’s injury, in that regard, might be a blessing in disguise.

The biggest looming question is whether we can expect to see Grant move into a safety role this year. There are a lot of moving parts that will come into play there. Can Darren Hall or Avery Williams step in to replace Isaiah Oliver? Can Grant get the playbook down enough to earn the snaps?

It seems that Harmon and Harris are dependable enough to avoid a complete implosion on the back end, but it would be hugely beneficial if someone could step forward as a playmaker. Hawkins’s lone interception is one of only three turnovers from the defense through five games. With several good offenses on the horizon, the Falcons defense needs more from their safeties.

Atlanta Falcons Mock Draft Duel: Week 6 Edition

Falcons mock draft

The Atlanta Falcons currently hold the eighth overall selection in the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft. Because we’re all looking towards the future, it bears the question: who’s next? Atlanta’s in a tough spot currently, and it starts under center. Matt Ryan isn’t getting any younger, and the succession plan is TBD. Defensively, that question is just as tough for the Atlanta Falcons future. Who can be paired with the menace that is Grady Jarrett on the interior? Or who’s the next incredible pass rusher? Heck, what about the lackluster secondary?

In the last edition of Around the Block’s Atlanta Falcons mock draft duel, Hunter and Adam received a challenge from Stevie. Which mock draft is better this time around? Find out below, then go to @falcons_atb on Twitter to vote for your favorite!

Hunter’s Atlanta Falcons Mock Draft (@hthompsonNFL)

Round 1 Pick 12: Carson Strong, QB, Nevada

  • This was not the ideal pick to start our Falcons mock draft, but most other targets I wanted were off the board. But alas, I’ll attempt to put a positive spin on this. Carson Strong is a name you might not have heard of if you don’t keep up with draft Twitter, but the 6’4″ 215 lb Nevada product is my QB1 in the class. Strong has a cannon that allows him place dimes across the field as he posted 16 TD’s to 3 INT’s at this point in the season. He’s also an incredible pre-snap QB who works through his progressions while leading the Nevada Air Raid offense. Strong would be able to come sit behind Ryan for a year while we build the rest of the roster.

Round 2 Pick 45: Josh Jobe, CB, Alabama

  • A high character corner from Alabama, Jobe has the ability to be a great corner to grow next to AJ Terrell. Jobe is a long corner who plays well in press coverage. He is a smart IQ player who does well with his technique to go toe to toe with any WR’s. He is a bit older as a 24 year old rookie, but Jobe fits what the Falcons are going to try run defensively under Pees.

Round 2 Pick 54: Isaiah Thomas, EDGE, Oklahoma

  • Isaiah Thomas has really been a freak of nature at Oklahoma this season. He is a 6’5″ 265lb EDGE who has been used in a variety of ways in Norman this year. He is explosive with his first step and an aggressive monster at the LOS. His hands are strong and his arsenal of pass rush moves is pretty solid. Grabbing a freak like Thomas here is a steal for the Falcons in the draft.

Round 3 Pick 75: Daniel Faalele, OT, Minnesota

  • Faalele is a mountain of a man at 6-feet-9, 380 pounds. He’s been sliding a bit down boards, but adding the mauler here is a nice addition for the Atlanta Falcons’ o-line. Faalele is a massive bear of a RT who will be able to come in and push Kaleb McGary for a starting spot along this offensive line.

Round 4 Pick 115: Smoke Monday, SAF, Auburn

  • The Falcons adding Smoke Monday here would be a smart move. Smoke would be able to come in and compete right off the bat with Jaylinn Hawkins and Richie Grant for starting safety reps in the Dean Pees defense. Smoke Monday is a leader on the Auburn defense who is a physical safety who is strong in the run game.

Adam’s Atlanta Falcons Mock Draft (@Damski32)

Round 1 Pick 12: Jordan Davis, iDL, Georgia

  • This gives us a unique opportunity to see what a draft outside the top 10 looks like. I started this thing off with an ass kicker and world destroyer right smack in the middle of the defense. Jordan is proving to be a complete nightmare for IOL both vs the pass and vs the run. He’s in great shape and that motor runs hot constantly. His raw strength is absolutely ridiculous and the fact that teams double and triple team him and he still gets home says a lot. Falcons look to rebuild this DL from the inside out and what a heck of a starting piece like Jordan Davis.

Round 2 Pick 45: John Metchie, WR, Alabama

  • John Metchie has been hot and cold this year and he’s really taken a backseat to Jameson Williams in that Alabama O. Which is fine for ATL. They benefit from getting this YAC WR; a big bodied X WR who can create decent separation on his own — which is what ATL really needs from its X WR. Ideally, I wanted OL, but I wasn’t going to rush the need and the Falcons DO need skill positions, too, so I was fine with taking a scheme fit WR here.

Round 2 Pick 54: Isaiah Spiller, RB, Texas A&M

  • Isaiah Spiller is going to be a pick of mine in every mock, I think. Spiller has such great vision and patience when coming through the hole and shows tons of burst and contact balance on film. Arthur Smith will definitely be looking for his bell-cow in this draft, and I think Spiller, the ever talented RB out of A&M, could be that guy. To note, Arthur loves his backs who can block on third down too; Spiller might be the best of the bunch in that area.

Round 3 Pick 76: Zion Johnson, iOL, Boston College

  • Zion Johnson from Boston College was someone who was HIGH on my radar last off-season when I knew we’d be in the market for an IOL. Luckily for ATL, he went back to school and they have a shot at him this year. Zion possesses real functional strength and is a bully in the run game, really good at getting to the second level to seal blocks, and has some nasty in the pass game. Having Mayfield be average this whole year wouldn’t stop me from adding bodies to the position. The Falcons did draft Drew Dalman after having Matt Hennessy on the roster already last year.

Round 4 Pick 115: Amare Barno, EDGE, Virginia Tech

  • Amare Barno is such an intriuging prospect and I think four months from now he may rise up the boards and could be a Day 2 pick. He has some really good power and offers some really good hand play. He’s an intriguing Day 3 option at EDGE for us that could potentially log some early snaps as a designated pass rusher. I really didn’t like how this turned out in terms of EDGE cause this was such a strong class, but I was happy to nab a guy that was high on my board!

Stephen’s Atlanta Falcons Mock Draft (@stevieraylee)

Round 1 Pick 12: Andrew Booth Jr., CB, Clemson

AJ Terrell is living up to the immense preseason hype, but he can’t do it by himself out there. Booth would be an immediate starter whose ability in man coverage would allow Pees to open up his playbook more than we’ve seen so far this season. Excellent footwork and balance keep Booth comfortable with any assignment. He can play out of control at times, but, with a little polish, Booth could make the secondary a strength for the Falcons defense.

Round 2 Pick 45: David Bell, WR, Purdue

If Bell can continue to build on his 11 catch, 240 yard game against Iowa, we probably won’t get many more opportunities to draft him this late. Bell fits the mold of a bigger, contested-catch receiver that Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith have been looking for since Julio Jones departed for Tennessee. Atlanta has Kyle Pitts and Calvin Ridley in the building for 2022, but that’s pretty much it. Even though there are other pressing issues, if the Falcons want to be competitive, they have to keep the offense running at a high level.

Round 2 Pick 54: Zion Nelson, OL, Miami

Nelson is an incredibly athletic offensive tackle that excels in pass pro against speed rushers. He moves well in space, and if he can put on (and keep on) weight, he has the potential to be an excellent run blocker in an outside zone scheme. The big question is whether he can maintain the requisite size to stick in the pros. Miami lists Nelson at 315lbs, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts his playing weight is closer to 300 lbs. That’s not big enough to make it in the NFL, but he has steadily added weight since arriving in Miami. He’d be a bit of a project, but he has the tools to be a standout tackle if he pans out.

Round 3 Pick 76: Jermaine Johnson, Edge, Florida St.

Feel free to accuse me of copying Adam’s mock from last week, but a good idea is a good idea. Johnson is lighting it up this season in Tallahassee, piling up 6.5 sacks through six games. He is built perfectly to slot in at OLB in this scheme, and has the physical tools to play whatever role Dean Pees cooks up for him. The fact that he had to transfer out of UGA only shows how talented the Bulldogs roster is. Expect Johnson to continue to rise up draft boards as we move along, but for now, he’s an immense value in the third round.

Round 4 Pick 115: Amare Barno, Edge, Virginia Tech

This draft class is far too deep at the edge to resist a double-dip. Barno isn’t a name that’s being kicked around a ton, but he led the D1 schools in TFL’s in 2020. He isn’t off to the same white-hot start that Jermaine Johnson is in 2021, but he has managed 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble so far. At 6’6, Barno has an ideal frame, though he could stand to add functional strength. Barno transitioned from off-ball LB to defensive end in 2020, making him an intriguing candidate for a scheme-diverse system like Atlanta’s. It’s a pick based on projection, but after investing in a polished rusher like Johnson, the Falcons can afford to roll the dice on a developments project.

Atlanta Falcons Q1 Review: Skill Players

Falcons Skills Players Credit: Sky Sports

Five weeks into the NFL season, the picture is coming into focus for the Atlanta Falcons. With the team in a bye week, I am looking at where each position group stands and what we may expect from them as we advance. I’ve already covered Matt Ryan and his offensive line. Today I am focusing on the skill players. We’ll start with the running backs and finish up with the receivers. Let’s jump in.

Running Backs: The Cordarrelle Patterson Show

Cordarrelle Patterson has been the offensive MVP. He’s been nothing short of a revelation for the Atlanta Falcons. He accounts for five of their twelve offensive touchdowns and nearly thirty percent of their total yardage. Even though many wrote him off as a return specialist and part-time gadget player, I tried my best to convince people he would be a significant part of this offense. Even with lofty expectations for him, I’m still surprised at how effective he’s been.

PFF agrees, grading him as the second-best running back in the NFL through five games. However, Football Outsiders doesn’t see it quite the same way. They have Patterson ranked 27th (of 40) in DYAR (reflects total value) and 24th (of 40) in DVOA (reflects value per play). I won’t sit here and pretend I understand that. Patterson eclipsed a 50% snap share for the first time all season against the Jets but still manages to carry an outsized portion of the Atlanta Falcons offensive production. Part of that is due to the impotence of the offense for the first three games, but Patterson has been a dangerous weapon through five games.

I supposed Football Outsiders is knocking him for the hot/cold nature of his runs. They list his success rate at 46%, which is 30th (of 40) in the NFL. Patterson has been a bit boom or bust in terms of rushing. Or perhaps they weight rushes higher than receptions, which make up the bulk of Patterson’s production. Either way, even if Patterson doesn’t stand out in terms of advanced metrics, he certainly passes the eyeball test.

Mike Davis Doing it the Hard Way

On the other hand, Mike Davis hasn’t gotten off to the start many of us expected. In terms of raw production, he’s been terrible. He’s averaging 3.3 yards per carry and has only one rushing touchdown. He’s added another receiving touchdown, but only 88 yards on 18 catches. Football Outsiders ranks him as the 35th (of 40) best running back in DYAR and DVOA and 39th (of 40) in success rate. PFF grades him out as the 50th best overall running back in the NFL. However, those stats aren’t giving you the complete picture.

Of Mike Davis’s 204 rushing yards, 176 have come after contact. Read that again. Over 86% of his total rushing yardage has come after contact. The top five runners in yards after contact are all significantly lower. At least 10% lower than Davis’s ridiculously high number of hard-won yardage. Who’s to blame for this inefficiency? There is plenty to go around. The line has to block better for him. Smith has to give him carries in less obvious situations. Davis isn’t blameless either. He has been slow to get to his gap on a few reps I’ve reviewed. On balance, though, his teammates aren’t giving him much room to operate. If this line can start to gel, I suspect we’ll see better production from Davis.

TLDR: Atlanta Falcons Running Backs

Patterson has been an absolute animal, despite mediocre ratings from Football Outsiders. This team would have struggled to win a game without Patterson being a dangerous weapon as a runner and receiver. Though his usage saw a massive uptick in week five, I suspect he will continue to see a relatively limited role as he will continue to share snaps with Mike Davis.

Mike Davis hasn’t been effective, but this offense hasn’t done him any favors. The lack of yardage he’s been able to gain before contact is paltry, and the fact that he’s managed to move the ball at all is somewhat surprising. I suspect the dual-threat nature Patterson presents makes it a bit easier on the line when he’s in the backfield. Perhaps this offense would benefit from getting Davis carries in situations that aren’t quite as obvious moving forward.

The Atlanta Falcons Look for a #1 Receiver

I’m going to lump tight ends and wide receivers into one category because there isn’t much of a divide between the two. This group hasn’t been highly productive, although we finally saw Kyle Pitts breakout against the Jets. Let’s start with the options on the outside.

Come Back Calvin!

Calvin Ridley is the only receiver of note on the Falcons roster. Russell Gage went down with a calf injury before he could make his presence felt, and Olamide Zaccheaus, Tajae Sharpe, and Christian Blake haven’t proven to be more than rotational depth at this point. Even Ridley’s season has been marred with drops and his sudden and mysterious departure from the team for “personal reasons.” I won’t speculate on the nature of Ridley’s personal matter, but the team has been openly supportive, and we as fans owe him as much too.

Before his (presumably) momentary departure, Ridley wasn’t overwhelmingly effective. Per Football Outsiders, he ranks 60th of 72 in DYAR and 57th of 72 in DVOA. PFF grades him as the 65th best of 113 qualifying receivers in the NFL. His yards per reception have fallen from 15.3 in 2020 to 9.4 in 2021. This is particularly alarming as his targets per game are at a career-high. It has been an inauspicious start for the newly minted #1 receiver in Atlanta.

We can rationalize this in a few different ways. One argument is that Ridley is getting more attention with Julio Jones’s departure, but that argument doesn’t hold water after reviewing the film. He’s getting looked at like a number one receiver, but he hasn’t demanded the same respect/fear as the departed Jones. In fact, he’s been open quite a bit through the first four weeks. Whenever faced with man coverage, he’s winning his matchup at an impressive rate. For a variety of reasons, Ryan hasn’t been able to take advantage of these moments.

Matching Talent to Scheme for the Atlanta Falcons

I propose the most significant reason for Ridley’s depressed production is how Arthur Smith uses him in the passing game. Ridley feasted on deep digs and comeback routes in 2020. However, in 2021 he’s seen a majority of his receptions on shallow crossing routes. It’s a mismatch of talent to philosophy. Arthur Smith prefers getting the ball into the hands of his receivers early and charging them with making plays after the catch. Ridley isn’t awful at this, but it undercuts his best trait, his crisp route running.

This mismatch of scheme and skill has led to all manner of undue criticisms of Ridley. Fans call him soft and unwilling to fight for tough yardage. Instead, we should call for Smith to use Ridley in a way befitting of his skill set. Hopefully, Ridley quickly rejoins the team, and when he does, let’s all hope Smith has a better plan for him. There is no excuse for his production to fall off a cliff as it has.

Can Anyone Else Step Up at Wide Receiver?

The other receivers aren’t worth mentioning. It sounds harsh, but aside from a few timely third-down conversions, they haven’t impacted the game. Of the top 113 graded receivers, only Sharpe has cracked the top 100, and he’s ranked 79th. When Russell Gage returns from injury, he may find a way to move the needle, but until then, this group is one of the worst in the NFL.

Unicorns and Rainbows

Fans were quick to bemoan Kyle Pitts’ slow start to the season. Despite never playing a snap in the NFL, many fans already envisioned his bust in the Hall of Fame. With the immense hype surrounding him before the draft, it was hard to temper expectations, but those expectations had grown far beyond anything close to reasonable. For context, Kyle Pitts was on pace to finish with the fifth-best rookie season for a tight end in NFL history through the first four weeks. Still, it wasn’t enough to satisfy the onlookers.

Week five against the Jets was the breakout game everyone was waiting on. A nine-catch, 119 yard, one-touchdown stat line is what everyone expected from the beginning. Now Pitts is on pace to threaten the all-time yardage record for rookie tight ends.

Pitts is still a mediocre tight end despite this newly achieved historic pace based on Football Outsiders stats. Of 42 ranked tight ends, he’s 13th in DYAR and 20th in DVOA. PFF is much more bullish; he’s graded as 8th of the 70 qualifying tight ends.

Be. Patient.

As it tends to be, the truth is somewhere in the middle of all these advanced metrics. Pitts proved he could be a dangerous weapon in week five. However, I doubt he ever sees as much single coverage as he faced against the Jets. On his first career touchdown, the Jets left a defensive end on an island against him. That’s not going to happen often. Does that mean this breakout game will prove to be an anomaly? Absolutely not. However, I wouldn’t bank on him putting up gaudy stats week in and week out.

What people tend to forget about Kyle Pitts is he is still incredibly young and unpolished. He turned 21 a week ago. Pitts is literally still growing. He is still learning how to be an effective receiver, and is far from a polished route runner. Pitts doesn’t fully grasp how to take advantage of the gaps in zone coverages. He has had reps where corners with a distinct size disadvantage have defeated him in press overage. Despite the promise he showed at Florida, he is far from a finished product. That’s ok. None of us should expect him to be an all-pro from day one. He is going to get better at all of those things, but it will take time. We got a taste of it last Sunday, but it won’t always be a smooth trip to the top of the NFL. Be patient.

The Legend of Lee Smith

The rest of the tight end group has been one of the most shocking things I’ve seen so far from this squad. Hayden Hurst, who I had penciled in as a very productive member of this team, currently grades out as the 69th of 70 qualifying tight ends, per PFF. Lee Smith, who I imagined as nothing more than a sixth offensive lineman, ranks 9th. Hurst is currently fourth in receiving yards for the Atlanta Falcons with 103 yards and a TD. Meanwhile, the great Lee Smith is only five receptions away from matching his career-high of 12.

To be fair, fumbles are behind Hurst’s poor grade, but I do expect more from him. His emergence as a viable threat will be even more critical if Calvin Ridley isn’t able to rejoin the team soon. Hurst has already proven he can be a productive tight end in 2020. Smith needs to find a way to get him more involved, and when his number gets called, Hurst needs to prove he can protect the football.

TLDR: Atlanta Falcons Receivers

With the departure of Julio Jones, everyone wondered how effective this group would be. Kyle Pitts is loaded with promise, but it’s never safe to gamble on a rookie. Calvin Ridley has everything it takes to be a primary receiver, but he has been miscast in this offense, and now his availability is murky. Depth is an issue across the board for the Falcons, but it is incredibly thin at wide receiver. Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus are effective slot receivers, but neither has proven effective as a #2. Tajae Sharpe has been a lunch pail guy, but he isn’t someone you want to start. Frank Darby has run the same number of routes this season as I have.

Considering the relative inefficiency with the run game, this receiving group needs another player to emerge. My money is still on Hayden Hurst, but someone needs to step forward and prove they can be counted on to help keep the offense on schedule. The Falcons have been lucky to face a few incompetent defenses, and the schedule isn’t as favorable moving forward. Generally speaking, early bye weeks are undesirable. In the Falcons case, it came at the perfect time. Hopefully, it allows them time to get Russell Gage and Calvin Ridley back on the field, while Arthur Smith has an extra week to tweak the offense to better suit the players on the roster.

Wrapping Up the Atlanta Falcons Offense

All in, it’s been a less than ideal start for this offense. Despite the stellar performances in weeks four and five, this group still hasn’t put together a game where they are firing on all cylinders. It may be asking too much to expect a good performance from every unit on this offense this season. There is so much youth and inexperience on this team from the top down. We may need to find a way to be contented with flashes of promise rather than total fulfillment. If this offense can’t offer up a near-perfect game against the 7th softest defensive schedule so far, it may be too much to expect them to pull it together against better defenses. The Falcons face four of the top ten defenses (in DVOA) over the next five weeks. The sledding gets a lot tougher from here.

Still, there are numerous reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Matt Ryan has strung together a pair of games that surpass anything he’s done since the Sarkisian era. Arthur Smith’s offense is predicated on a strong run game, and if this offensive line can continue to progress, we will see what this offense looks like when it doesn’t have to play left-handed. The most promising sign is this is a team that shows it can learn from its mistakes. Arthur Smith was needlessly cautious, and it cost them a game. The following week he didn’t hesitate to attack when the same situation presented itself. Ryan seemed hesitant to throw into contested windows early, but we saw him firing balls into tight windows last week. Jalen Mayfield is cleaning up his technique. Mike Davis is still fighting for yards. This team is close to putting it together on offense; it’s just a matter of time.