Patriots Stay Hot Against Falcons

Patriots vs Falcons
Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It wasn’t sleek. Or shiny. Or really that sexy. But if you’re complaining about the Patriots’ 25-0 drubbing of the Falcons on Thursday Night Football, you were probably the kid that complained they didn’t get enough presents on Christmas. Don’t be that kid.

While it may not get many points in the style category it certainly beats a “pretty loss.” The Patriots handled their business on a short week against the Falcons an unfamiliar opponent. And if you think New England should have beat them by more, just look at the results from Sunday and appreciate the W.

The Bills got dominated by the underdog Colts. The best team in the conference, the Titans, lost to the worst team in the conference, the Texans. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a win is a win is a win. Doesn’t need style points.

Patriots vs Falcons Recap

Here are 14 observations from the Thursday Night Shutout.

1.) Kyle Van Noy was the lead story. He’s been coming along slowly throughout the season before erupting against the Falcons. He had 8 total tackles, 2 sacks, 2 tackles for a loss, and one interception return for a touchdown. On a defense full of playmakers, one of the original boogeymen is rounding into form. Bad news for 31 other offenses.

2.) The Pats had 12 QB hits on Matt Ryan, a season high. That pressure goes a long way in explaining the team’s recent success on third downs. The Falcons were 2-11 on third down. The Browns were 1-11 a week before. Games are won on third down and the Patriots defense has been dominating opponents on the money down in recent weeks.

Over the last four games, the defense has pressured opposing QB’s on 48.5% of their drop-backs. Ryan was pressured on 59.4% of his drop-backs against the Pats.

3.) It’s a poorly kept secret that here at Around the Block Sports we’ve had a bit of a crush on Christian Barmore. He continued to be disruptive despite a quiet stat line (1 tackle for a loss). If you want teaching tape on what interior pressure does to an opponents’ passing game, watch Barmore against the Falcons.

4.) Staying with the big fellas up front, Carl Davis had himself a great game. He re-established the line of scrimmage in the Falcons backfield multiple times, including the critical fourth-down stop sequence in the third quarter.

5.) The Pats’ use of “big nickel” is a big reason for their defensive success and ability to match up with opposing offenses. In a typical nickel defense, a third corner enters the game, for the Pats they’ve been putting a third safety on the field. Devin McCourty has played 92.3% of defensive snaps this season, Adrian Phillips 81.5%, and Kyle Dugger 80.9%.

A big reason this defensive personnel package has found success is the hybrid ability of all three players. Phillips played primarily linebacker for the Pats last year. Add in Dugger’s train wreck level collisions and you aren’t losing a lot of physicality with the extra DB on the field. Not only does Dugger hit hard, but he shut down Kyle Pitts one on one in multiple instances Thursday night.

6.) The Browns scored 4:55 into the first quarter of their game against the Pats. Since then, opposing offenses have had 19 possessions with zero points. In that same time, the Pats have scored 70 unanswered points.

7.) The red zone defense is another reason this team has found success. They are allowing touchdowns on 48.3% of opponents’ trips into the red area. Last year they surrendered touchdowns on 65.3% of opponents’ trips, good for 28th in the league in red-zone defense. The Pats have 9 red zone stops this year, good for tops in the league.

8.) Going into the game, the theory was the Pats may revert to their roots in man coverage as the Falcons had struggled against it more than they had against zone. The Pats didn’t care. They played zone on all but 6 defensive snaps against the Falcons. It might have caught the Falcons by surprise as all three quarterbacks on their roster threw an interception.

It was the first time three quarterbacks on the same team each had thrown an interception in a single game since 2000. Current Michigan Head Coach Jim Harbaugh was one of the offending parties for that Chargers team.

9.) Receiving stats since October 24: JC Jackson- 4 INTs, 91 yards, 1 touchdown. Odell Beckham Jr.- 3 catches, 24 yards.

10.) Belichick’s love for special teams had a palpable effect on the game. The Falcons’ average starting field position was their own 21-yard line. The Pats’ average starting field position was their own 33-yard line. A significant advantage in hidden yardage for the Patriots.

11.) Mac Jones is completing 83.7% of his passes over the last two games. Jones now has seven games on the season where he has a completion percentage north of 70%. No other QB has more than four.

And before we start screaming to the masses that Mac is a dink and dunk QB, his yards per attempt is greater than Patrick Mahomes’ or Justin Herbert’s.

12.) Despite his accuracy and usual good decision-making, he did struggle to identify multiple Falcons’ defensive looks on Thursday night. The Falcons were able to fool him with multiple defensive back blitzes. His interception may have been a case of misreading a post-snap coverage roll as well.

13.) The good news for the Pats having sustained success as the weather turns colder is their pair of absolute bruisers at running back. Damien Harris played 25 snaps while rookie Rhamondre Stevenson got 22. Stevenson had more touches than Harris, 13 to 11. Not a lot of defenses will enjoy seeing this team in the frigid northeast later this season.

Especially behind massive Trent Brown and human wrecking ball Shaq Mason. 104 of the Patriots’ 134 rushing yards against the Falcons came behind that destructive duo.

14.) The Patriots played the Bucs on a Thursday Night in 2017. The Buccaneers kicker missed three field-goal attempts that night and wouldn’t play in the NFL for two full years after being released the next day. That same kicker is now 25 of 27 on-field goals this year including going 4 for 4 Thursday night against the Falcons. Incredible comeback for Nick Folk.

Can Patriots Extend Win-Streak to Five Against Falcons?

Patriots
(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The Patriots made a statement last Sunday, beating the Browns handedly at home, and announcing their return to legitimate contender status. The Pats are riding high on a four-game win streak. They will look to stretch it to five with a win over the 4-5 Falcons.

While the Pats are gaining attention as one of the hottest teams in the league, the Falcons seem to be caught in purgatory. Each Falcons win has been by a single possession, their largest margin of victory being 7 points over the Jets. They feature two losses by a single possession but also three more by 23-points or more. The Falcons’ record has them just outside the NFC playoff picture despite low ratings from advanced metrics.

The Falcons are 32nd in total VOA, 29th in OVOA, 31st in DVOA, and 32nd in STVOA. VOA is an advanced metric that measures total team (total VOA), offensive (OVOA), defensive (DVOA), and special teams (STVOA) value over average. Frankly, the Falcons are rated as the worst team in football. Particularly incredible when you see them on the bubble of the NFC playoff picture. The average winning percentage in single possession games is .500, meaning the Falcons have found some luck in these games which have boosted their win percentage.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Patriots are 5th in total VOA, 16th in OVOA, 5th in DVOA, and 8th in STVOA. This is including their slow start to the season on offense and special teams. Despite recent trends, a short week against an unfamiliar opponent can cause problems. If the Pats want to be viewed as a good team, they need to handle their business against the Falcons. A repeat of the Houston performance would show an immature team that isn’t ready for success.

Without further ado, the game preview written in “who has the advantage when…” format.

Pats Pass the Ball

Mac followed up two poor showings with his best career game against the Browns last Sunday. Since Week 6, Mac is 9th in the NFL in yards, 5th in TDS, 4th in TD:INT ratio, 2nd in EPA per play, and 7th in average depth of target while the Pats to a 4-1 record and the highest points per game during that stretch. Not only that, but on the season the Patriots trail only the Raiders in plays of 20-plus yards. The Pats had 51 such plays all of last season. In ten games this year they already have 48. While the weather turns colder, it is becoming apparent it’s also becoming “Let Mac Cook” season.

In the past four games the Pats are averaging 37.5 points per game. All around impressive numbers for an offense led by a rookie quarterback who had concerns regarding his arm strength while coming out. 

A large reason Mac has had such great success has been the stellar job of the big guys upfront. The Patriots’ offensive line is allowing pressure on only 15% of Mac’s dropbacks over the last month. That 15% is good for second-best in the league during that stretch. Even more impressive is the competition the offensive line has faced during that time. Premier pass rushers Joey Bosa, Haason Reddick, Myles Garrett, and Jadeveon Clowney were largely nonfactors in games against the Pats.

That’s all good news for the Pats as they face a defense that has struggled against top competition. While the Pats have shut down opponents’ edge rushers, the Falcons Grady Jarrett will present a new challenge. Mac is the prototypical pocket passer. Jarrett is the prototypical pocket penetrator from the interior defensive line. The success of the passing game will largely come down to the trio of Ted Karras, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason keeping the structure of the pocket for Mac. If Mac has time, Mac is going to cook.

Advantage: Pats

Pats Run the Ball

A week ago, the Pats’ top two backs didn’t practice and Rhamondre Stevenson was cleared to play on Saturday. The result was the Patriots’ single-best rushing output this season against a typically stingy defense. This week the Pats cleared Damien Harris from concussion protocol to return the running back room to full strength. After seeing what Stevenson could do as a feature back, having him splitting carries to keep him and Harris fresh is sure to have given the Falcons defense headaches before the game even started.

Toss in a newly returned 6’8”, 360 pound Trent Brown and the Pats are primed to play hardnosed football down the stretch. Last week we saw a Mason-Brown-Onwenu right side of the line average 6.7 yards per carry. The Patriots’ success on first down in the running game has led to the team converting on 46.9% of their third downs this season. That success rate is good for fourth-best in the league, trailing only the Chiefs, Bills, and Buccaneers. McDaniels could go with that grouping all night against the Falcons and have unlimited success. The Falcons are middle of the pack in terms of defending the run. On a short week, a physical game plan by the Pats may make quick work of the Falcons defense.

Advantage: Pats

Falcons Pass the Ball

While Mac has been cooking, Matt Ryan was nowhere near the kitchen last Sunday completing nine, NINE!!!, passes against the Cowboys. The Falcons passing offense was supposed to be a potent, multi-layer attack with the addition of uber-talented rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. Unfortunately for the Falcons, starting wide receiver Calvin Ridley has missed multiple games this season and backups Russell Gage and Tajae Sharpe have not picked up the slack. Backup tight end Hayden Hurst is usually involved in carrying some of the weight of the passing game but will miss Thursday’s game against the Pats.

While Pitts has provided one bright spot for the Falcons, WR/RB Cordarrelle Patterson has provided the other. The return-man-turned-offensive-weapon leads the team with 5 receiving touchdowns and trails Pitts for the team lead in reception by one catch. He’s also the team’s leading rusher. His status for Thursday night will be determined in pregame but an already unfavorable matchup could get downright ugly if he can’t go.

The Falcons have had issues against man-coverage this season, something that does not bode well for them as they prepare to play the league leader in Cover 1 use. The Pats have utilized zone coverage 70.5% of the time over the last four weeks but have always been a gameplan team under Belichick. The Falcons average 4.69 yards per play against man coverage, completing 60.9% of their passes. Those numbers jump to 5.87 and 72.4% against zone. The recent success of the Pats zone coverage should not lull them into a faulty game plan against the Falcons. If Patterson can’t go the Pats can focus resources on stopping Pitts and taking the motor out of this offense.

Advantage: Pats

Falcons Run the Ball

The Falcons’ issues don’t stop here. Their rushing attack doesn’t crack the top 30 in any advanced metric. The lack of balance on offense has led to a bottom-six team in terms of offensive drives that result in points and a team that trails only the Jets and Lions in offensive drives that result in turnovers.  The Pats were gashed early against the Browns before changing their approach and finding success. The feeling here is the Pats might not need to change much to find success in stopping the Falcons run game. Ja’Whaun Bentley and Dont’a Hightower form a formidable core to the Patriots run defense that should continue to find splash plays against the Falcons.

Advantage: Pats

Special Teams

The Falcons had a punt blocked last week that added to already dismal season performance from their special teams. The Pats had a rough start but have returned to their dominance in the third phase of the game. Last week saw some hidden yards lost in the return game as Jakobi Meyers’ hesitance to field punts led to some favorable Cleveland bounces. Thankfully Gunner Olszewski cleared concussion protocol and should be back to his spot in the return game.

Of note, but not necessarily game impacting, this will be Matthew Slater’s 200th career game with the Patriots. He joins Tom Brady (285), Bruce Armstrong (212), Julius Adams (206), and Stephen Gostkowski (204) to become the fifth Patriots player to do so.

Advantage: Pats

Coaching

The Falcons hired Arthur Smith this offseason in hopes of turning the teams’ fortunes around. He comes to Atlanta from Tennessee where he served as offensive coordinator under Mike Vrabel. Belichick has historically dominated rookie head coaches and with a short week of prep, the hoodie gets all the advantages here. Belichick’s ability to self-scout has taken the Pats from a 2-4 team to one that is 6-4 and looking like a legitimate contender. McDaniels had perhaps his best game of the year against Cleveland and should continue to let Mac cook.

Regardless of coaching the officiating crew tonight is one of the more flag-happy crews in the league. Land Clark will serve as referee. His crews average 17.4 accepted penalties per game, second-most among crews.

One thing to keep in mind in regards to Thursday night games; teams usually stay with their bread and butter plays as they had limited time to install game-specific game plans. The good news is the Patriots’ power-trap run game is one of their staples. It’s been a big part of their offensive success this season and will be again against the Falcons.

Advantage: Pats

Prediction

A unanimous favoring of the Pats in the breakdown should be reflected on the field. However, a year ago the Pats were riding high after a 45-0 beatdown of the Chargers before dropping a dud on Thursday Night Football, losing to the Rams 24-3. A week ago, division rivals, and heavy underdog, Miami Dolphins took down the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday Night Football. Belichick will have focused on the narrow victory against the Texans to have his team focused regardless of the opponent. While the Pats should win big, the ultimate goal is to walk out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium 7-4. A win is a win is a win. Wondered if predicting 28-3 would be taboo. 28 points for the Pats in this one seems low. Pats win 34-13.

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 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.

Falcons vs. Jets: An Excuse to Drink at Breakfast

Falcons vs. Jets Credit: Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Jets Fans Have a Reason to Fly High

The Jets fly into London feeling a little better about themselves after collecting their first victory of the 2021 season. Rookie quarterback Zac Wilson has looked like a rookie from BYU adjusting to the NFL, but last week we saw a glimpse of the potential that propelled him up draft boards last spring. After a slew of questionable decisions in his first two games, it appeared his coaches tried to reign in his free-wheeling style of play in week three, only to see him throw for 160 yards and two interceptions. Last week, Wilson was back to his backyard playstyle, and he logged the best game of his short career. It wasn’t a perfect game, Wilson has yet to exit a game with no turnovers, but he helped generate big plays. 

The Jets pass rush exploded against a depleted Titan’s offense, amassing seven sacks in week four after totaling only six sacks in the first three weeks. Third-year defensive tackle Quinnen Williams has had a fast start, and John Franklin-Myers and Bryce Huff have emerged as legitimate threats as edge rushers. The Jets’ secondary hasn’t faced a potent offense, but they’ve bordered on average so far this season. Despite the glut of turnovers from the offense, the Jets defense has done well to secure themselves in the top half of the NFL in yards and points allowed. 

Falcons Fans Waiting to See a Finished Product

The Falcons have been schizophrenic through the first four weeks. After laying an egg against the Eagles and Bucs, the defense carried the team to victory in week three before falling apart entirely against Washington last week. The offense, who had been nearly invisible all season, finally showed up against a dreadful Washington defense. Unfortunately, until this team can put together a complete game in all three phases, it doesn’t seem likely they’ll find much success. The only consistency Atlanta has seen this year is in Cordarrelle Patterson, but despite his best efforts, he can’t carry this team by himself.

Sometimes Growth Means More than Wins 

That brings us to the “must-win” game for both teams this Sunday. If we choose to be honest, we can admit that a win for either team isn’t going to move the needle this season. The Falcons and Jets wrote their stories before this season ever kicked off. The Jets embraced the rebuild by throwing their rookie quarterback into the fire. Sure, they added some pieces in free agency, but they intended to compete in 2022 and 2023. This season was always going to be the first step in a new direction. 

Though the Falcons’ leadership deflected the notion, it is apparent this is year zero of a long-term rebuild for this team. We all heard Arthur Smith say Blank hired the wrongs guys if he wanted to rebuild, but Smith’s bluster didn’t match the team’s actions in the offseason. No one expects the front office to admit they do not intend to compete, but the truth was in plain sight for anyone willing to look. That’s why many of us are already firing off draft takes.

At this point, both fan bases should shift their baseline expectations away from wins and focus on growth. Wins will keep the casual fans engaged, but progress is far more critical. Creating incremental gains week to week is the only path to changing the narrative. Planting seeds now is the only way to enjoy the fruit they may bear in the future. The question for this week, and every week moving forward, is how much can both of these teams grow.

Can the Falcons Offense Survive Without Ridley?

The Falcons finally saw an offense that resembles what we expected going into this season. After three weeks of nominal production from Matt Ryan and this passing offense, they notched four passing touchdowns (thanks, Cordarrellle!) against Washington. We finally saw a few explosive plays after three games of nickel and diming defenses. This newfound production was due partly to a shift in playcalling, but mainly because the Falcons held Washington to their fewest quarterback pressures this season. Ryan looked remotely comfortable in the pocket and was generally able to deliver the ball in rhythm, a scenario that has been painfully absent so far this season.

This is the part of the article where I had focused on the offensive line and playcalling. I had a thousand carefully chosen words outlining who needed to continue growing and how Calvin Ridley was the key to this offense blossoming into the productive unit we all hoped to see. Then, in a bizarre turn of events, the news came down that Calvin Ridley wouldn’t be traveling with the team to London due to “personal reasons” just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post. Awesome.

First, let’s all hope everything in Ridley’s life will be ok. There will be plenty of speculation about what’s happening and what it means. We aren’t likely to find out what happened anytime soon, if at all. I sincerely hope whatever is going on comes to a positive conclusion for the sake of everyone involved. Life is bigger than football, and I wish Ridley the best.

Time for Plan B

Now, the question is, how do the Falcons overcome this stunning blow to their offense. There isn’t an easy answer to that. With Russell Gage also ruled out, the team is devoid of any threats on the outside to keep the Jets honest. If I were Robert Saleh, I would be throwing every blitz in my playbook at Matt Ryan. I would have zero concerns about single coverage on Olamide Zaccheaus and Tajae Sharpe. Stack the box on early downs, and send the house on third. Wash, rinse, repeat. 

The easy answer for the Falcons is Kyle Pitts, but the rookie tight end hasn’t shown any reason to believe he can step in and be the alpha receiver on the outside. I’m sure Arthur Smith will ramp up his usage lined up wide, but I wouldn’t count on that translating to a breakout game. Perhaps Corrdarrelle Patterson slots in at receiver, but his productivity has skyrocketed because of his flexibility. Simply lining him up as an X eliminates the competitive advantage he presents as a moveable chess piece. Patterson has carried this offense so far, but can he keep that pace up with no help around him?

This week presents the most daunting challenge of Arthur Smith’s career as a play-caller. He isn’t facing a daunting defense, but he has so little to work with to keep them honest. I expect a heavy dose of multiple tight end sets, a doubling down on the run game, and quite a few prayers that they can gut out tough yards to stay on schedule.

It Starts Up Front for the Falcons

Whether this plan works falls entirely on the offensive line. The Jets are coming off an impressive seven-sack game, but they haven’t been overwhelmingly effective at rushing the passer this season. Roughly half of their thirteen sacks and forty-one pressures came in their game last Sunday. Jets fans have reason to be excited about their defense, but some regression back to the mean is inevitable. However, unless Atlanta can generate some yardage in the air, they likely face an endless wave of blitzes. These young interior linemen will need to grow up fast this week.

Can Jalen Mayfield, who deserved a much better PFF grade than he received this week, continue to improve after a disastrous start to the season? Facing Quinnen Williams is a tough draw for any guard, but Mayfield availed himself relatively well against a pair of strong interior linemen last week. Matt Hennessey has had positive moments but has struggled to maintain an average level of play. Atlanta has gotten solid performances from Jake Matthews, but Kaleb McGary has continuously faltered at right tackle. Despite the strong start from the Jets edge rushers, this is still the easiest matchup McGary has seen so far. Can he turn in a good performance this week, or will we head into the bye counting the days until Matt Gono is cleared to play?

The Rushing Attack Needs to Carry the Team

Perhaps a more pressing question is whether Atlanta’s line can generate some push in the run game. If this offense is going to function without Calvin Ridley, we need to see a dramatic improvement in the run game. Fans were quick to call for Mike Davis’s job after averaging an embarrassing 1.1 yards per attempt against Washington. However, upon reviewing the all-22 film, it’s pretty apparent the blame doesn’t fall directly on Davis’ shoulder. Chris Lindstrom was the only Falcons lineman that consistently performed to par in the run game. For this offense to maintain a consistently high level of play, the run game has to be efficient. Atlanta doesn’t have to lead the league in rushing yardage, but a sub-30% success rate (29th in the NFL) is not a recipe for success. The Jets are 18th in the NFL in rushing success rate allowed (41.7%), so Atlanta has an opportunity to turn things around this week. 

We have yet to see Atlanta marry a successful run game to an explosive passing game. It isn’t surprising with an entirely new scheme and youth at critical positions, but entering into week five, I had hoped to see progress. Progress will be hard to find without Calvin Ridley, so now the best we can hope for is something bordering on competence. 

Can the Falcons Rally On Defense?

We were all shocked to see the defense showed some life through the first three weeks. Granted, they allowed roughly a million points to the Eagles and Bucs, but it was nearly excusable with the catastrophic offensive performance. They looked competent, dare I say borderline good, against the Giants. Then it all came tumbling down against Washington, leaving fans to wonder whether it was all an illusion all along. We should learn a bit more this week. If the Falcons can’t pull it together defensively this week, it is time to panic.

The Jets are a terrible offensive team. Let’s hit some highlights. 

The Jets are:

  • 32nd in points scored
  • 29th in yards gained
  • 1st in INTs thrown
  • 32nd in EPA/play
  • 32nd in Offensive DVOA

The Jets are one of the few teams that are worse than Atlanta offensively. Wilson has thrown an interception in every game this season. Their leading rusher (Micheal Carter) is averaging 3.4 yards per attempt. This team is objectively a terrible offense. If Atlanta can’t stand firm against this offense, there is very little hope for them in the short term. 

Injuries at Nickel Complicate Matters

The season-ending injury to Isaiah Oliver is concerning, especially with the recent return of Jamison Crowder. This is exasperated by an injury to Avery Williams, meaning we may see the debut of Darren Hall or Richie Grant on Sunday. Still, by and large, this is a healthy defensive unit that *should* keep this opponent in check. It’s likely to boil down whether the Falcons can find a way to limit Zac Wilson’s ability to escape the pocket and create big plays. Three of the four quarterbacks the Falcons have seen this season has made them pay for breakdowns in containment, and if they can’t clean this up, Wilson will be the fourth. 

Dean Pees is aware of this weakness; he addressed it specifically in his press conference this week, so it will be interesting to see how it affects his play calling. Will he continue to be aggressive and blitz to create pressure, or will he depend on disguising coverages and forcing Wilson to diagnose and deliver the ball from the pocket? Can he get more out of his linebackers and defensive backs when it comes to containment? 

Will the Falcons Run Defense Even Get Off the (Double-Decker) Bus?

In terms of raw statistics, the Atlanta Falcons don’t have a terrible run defense. However, if you look at the success rate allowed or yards/carry allowed, you’ll see the Falcons are near the bottom of the league. Atlanta has benefitted from playing teams that aren’t terribly interested in dedicating themselves to running the ball, but each team they’ve faced has been efficient on the ground. While the Jets haven’t found much, if any, success on the ground, this may be the week they rededicate themselves to their run game. 

The promotion of defensive tackle Mike Pennel is a storyline to monitor this week. The struggles Atlanta has seen on defense stem from an inability to control the line of scrimmage. There is no guarantee he’ll make the active roster, but at 330lbs, he adds much-needed size to this defensive line. I hesitate to place high expectations on a journeyman tackle, but if he can achieve even a mediocre level of performance, it would lift this defense.

The linebackers for Atlanta need to step up their games too. My previous film review revealed undisciplined play, poor tackling, and, sometimes, an unwillingness to play through contact. It isn’t limited to one player. The entire unit has shared these struggles. Better play from the defensive line will help, but we need to see this group settle into their roles and play mistake-free football.

Any hopes of pulling this game out lie squarely on the shoulders of the defense. If they can limit the Jets to fourteen points or less, it will give the offense a chance. There is little hope for the Falcons if this turns into a shootout. They just don’t have the ammunition for it.

Can Our Special Teams Avoid Unforced Errors

Special teams issues have plagued the Falcons all season. We’ve yet to see this team log a “clean” game from its special teams between shanked punts, injured punters, and allowing a kick return for a touchdown. The return touchdown was an obvious error, but the yardage lost to bad punts has been just as impactful. The Falcons aren’t a team with a wide margin for error, and losing the field position battle because of poor kicking is enough to erase whatever small advantages the team manages to find. 

With Cam Nizialek injured, Atlanta will turn to Dustin Colquitt as his replacement. Nizialek struggled to begin the year but seemed to have leveled off before suffering an injury last week. Colquitt had an excellent career with Kansas City, but at 39 years old, it’s fair to wonder how much he has left to offer. Here’s to hoping he can recapture his glory days for at least a few weeks.

Buckle Up Buckaroos

Destiny requires this to be an ugly game. Two bad teams facing off for a crowd on the wrong side of the Atlantic ocean who don’t know who or what to cheer for was never a good game scenario. Ugly games can still be fun, though. I’d love to write a glowingly optimistic preview for this one. Hell, I had a borderline cheerful preview written before the Ridley news. However, as it stands now, I’m not sure if either team will be effective offensively.

There is a path to victory for Atlanta. Limit the Jets offense, hope to generate a spark with your special teams, and do just enough on offense to get by. It’s a narrow path to walk, but it’s viable. Unfortunately, there are so many things stacked against the Falcons that I can’t bring myself to predict a victory. It’s probably time to limp into the bye week and regroup before taking on a much tougher slate of games. For the second week in a row, I’ll predict the Falcons drop a “must-win” game.

Final prediction Jets 17 – Falcons 6