The Falcons’ 16th-ranked offense looks perfectly average on the surface but the splits tell a different story. In 2020, they were a completely different offense with Julio Jones healthy. The Falcons struggled to run the ball and keep the pressure off Matt Ryan, who is not a particularly mobile quarterback. As a result, the Falcons’ offense relied too heavily on Ryan making good throws under pressure. With Julio, he was successful enough to move the ball consistently. Without Julio, too many drives stalled.
*For this chart, “Injured Julio” includes two games where he started with an injury tag and was ruled out after playing fewer than 23 snaps.
This chart shows the Falcons’ offensive Adjusted SharpClarke Rating in the 7 games with Julio healthy (the red line) against the 9 games without Julio (the black line). He provided a big, reliable target who could create space and run after the catch, which is an indispensable asset for an under-siege quarterback who cannot rely on the run game. Regardless of individual performance, his mere presence had a substantial impact on the offense. Calvin Ridley did not step up his production noticeably in the games that Julio missed. He made some nice plays but does not profile to replace Julio’s role in the offense. The Falcons’ offense was top-10 with Julio and bottom-10 without Julio.
Julio Transforms the Atlanta Offense
|ATL Adjusted Offensive Rating||NFL Rank|
The Falcons’ inability to run meant that everything was on Matt Ryan’s shoulders. Atlanta ranked 2nd in the NFL in passing first downs but 28th in rushing first downs. They were 31st in yards per carry. Ryan actually performed quite well given the lack of support and has long established himself as one of the NFL’s better starting quarterbacks, particularly when Julio is available. He can make all the throws and sees the field well even when under pressure.
But the Falcons only won 4 games in 2020. They continued a longstanding trend of losing games they were in a strong position to win. Falcons fans will never forget the Patriots storming back from a 28-3 deficit in the Super Bowl as Ryan was unable to close out the game. And in 2016, Ryan lost a game by throwing a rare “pick-2” on a 2-point conversion while up by 1 point against the Chiefs. This season they suffered at least four gut-wrenching losses by my count: (1) A Week 2 loss to Dallas on a botched onside kick recovery, (2) a Week 3 loss to the Bears on a 16-point comeback led by Nick Foles, (3) a Week 7 loss to the Lions on a game-winning drive by Stafford after an “accidental” touchdown by Todd Gurley when they could have run out the clock, and (4) a Week 15 loss to Tampa Bay where they blew a 24-7 second-half lead. Ryan obviously does not deserve all the blame, but is at least partially responsible for these losses.
However, Ryan also has the ability and experience to come through in the clutch. These high-profile losses should not offset what he has accomplished in his career. Ryan is tied for 8th all-time in game winning drives by a quarterback. And nobody above him on the list has notched a higher percentage of their total wins in crunch time.
All-Time Leaders in Game-Winning Drives
|Game-Winning Drives||% of Total Wins|
Ultimately the Falcons need to improve their offensive line. If they can upgrade the running game from terrible to average and give Matt Ryan slightly more time in the pocket, they can easily be a top-10 offense, particularly with Julio healthy. They have the talent at quarterback and receiver to beat good defenses, and should be able to maintain leads more confidently with a little improvement in the run game.
The Falcons’ much maligned 19th-ranked defense faced an absurdly tough schedule in terms of opposing quarterbacks. They faced Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady (twice), Justin Herbert, Derek Carr, Matthew Stafford, Dak Prescott, and Kirk Cousins. That’s 10 matchups In 16 games against top-14 PFF rated quarterbacks. They faced a particularly tough schedule in terms of passing quarterbacks, including 10 matchups against quarterbacks in the top 13 in yards per attempt. They also held a lead at some point in 13 out of 16 games, despite winning only 4. This led to a popular surface-level narrative that the Falcons could not defend the pass.
As it turns out, not all surface-level narratives are wrong. Even factoring in the relative strength of each opponent, the Falcons did perform worse against teams that prefer to pass:
*Omitted Week 4 v. GB, who had an artificially high run rate due to leading so many games but obviously ran their offense through MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who predictably tore up the Falcons (-1.22 Adj. Rating)
This chart shows Atlanta’s Defensive Adjusted Rating ranked by each team’s tendency to run, with run-heavy teams on the left side of the chart and pass-heavy teams on the right. With the exception of a solid game against Kansas City, the Falcons struggled against pass-heavy teams TB (-1.67 and -0.16), DET (-0.15), CHI (-0.31), DAL (-0.93), and SEA (-0.91). Meanwhile, they had some of their better games against run-heavy teams NO (+0.68), MIN (+1.33), LV (+1.78), DEN (+0.11), and LAC (+0.50).
Given that the Falcons were notably more vulnerable to the pass, their schedule against the league’s best passing quarterbacks presented a significant matchup problem. This vulnerability led to a dramatic difference between first half and second half performance. The blown leads listed above were primarily a defensive problem as they fell apart too often in the second half.
Atlanta’s First and Second Half Scoring Splits
|1st Half Points||NFL Rank||2nd Half Points||NFL Rank|
No Falcons lead was safe. Even Nick Foles led 3 4th-quarter touchdown drives for the Bears in a shocking comeback. It wasn’t just great quarterbacks taking advantage. They had a true weakness and could not be trusted to hold the lead defensively against any half-competent quarterback.
But the Falcons’ defense did improve steadily over the season. After an 0-5 start they fired Head Coach Dan Quinn and replaced him with interim coach Raheem Morris. Although they finished the season ranked 19th in average Adjusted Rating at -0.10, they put up a very respectable +0.28 average in the 11 games under Morris to end the season. That number would put them at 7th in the NFL defensively. Time will tell whether the new permanent coaching staff will continue this positive trend, but there is certainly reason for optimism.
*Omitted a meaningless Week 17 game v. TB
Atlanta’s defense includes some promising young players and they have proven that they can get to the quarterback at a reasonable (but not exceptional) rate. They were solid against the run (6th in yards per game and 15th in yards per carry). But the great quarterbacks they faced in 2020 could handle Atlanta’s pressure and that’s why the Falcons got burned. They should improve as a defense if they continue their 2020 trajectory and face even a slightly easier slate of opposing quarterbacks.
Putting it All Together
- Overall, Atlanta is underrated going into the offseason. They proved they can play with any team but their record (4-12) made them look like a bottom-tier team.
- Expect Atlanta to outperform when Julio Jones is healthy. There is some concern that he could start to lose his edge in his age-32 season, but while on the field in 2020 he showed no sign of decline.
- The Falcons perform well as an underdog because they have a good quarterback and a defense that performs better against the run than the pass. They are typically a good bet to cover as a medium to large underdog because they keep games close.
- Unless the Falcons show improvement defensively, be cautious betting them against good passing quarterbacks, especially if the spread is small or Atlanta is favored.
- If Arthur Smith and the new coaching staff are able to reset Atlanta’s losing culture and the team responds well early on, the Falcons could be an under-the-radar team worth betting on until the betting markets show them respect.
- I have not yet studied whether a team’s first half v. second half scoring splits are predictive from one season to the next, but I will perform statistical modeling this offseason to determine whether it is a playable angle. If it is, the massive disparity between Atlanta’s first half and second half performance could provide value on Atlanta in first-half bets and going against Atlanta in second-half bets.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- Matt Ryan is significantly more productive when he can throw to a healthy Julio Jones. This makes Ryan a valuable low-cost quarterback option in fantasy football if Jones is healthy. But if you draft him, be prepared with a solid backup in case something happens to Julio.
- Atlanta’s running backs were all mediocre (at best) last season. They operate a low-volume rushing attack with not much promise for success. It doesn’t help that two of the best run defenses in the league (NO and TB) play in Atlanta’s division. Unless they dramatically overhaul the run game, avoid all running backs in this offense.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
In Week 2 against Dallas, the Falcons were 4.5-point road underdogs. This is the sweet spot for Atlanta, who thrive as healthy underdogs (over 3 points) against teams with a weak passing defense. Julio Jones was healthy, so I projected Matt Ryan as the better quarterback in the matchup. Getting 4.5 was a no brainer. I put 4 Units on ATL +4.5 and included ATL +10.5 in a 6-point teaser, predicting it would be extremely unlikely for the Falcons to get blown out. They started the game up 20-0 and held a 15-point 4th quarter lead, but famously lost when they watched the Cowboys’ onside kick spin slowly for 10 yards without jumping on it. Still, we got the wins on both bets despite the team’s choke job.