Atlanta Falcons 2021 Team Study

Part 21 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 20 here: Houston Texans. Part 22 now available: New Orleans Saints.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Offensive Eff. Rating (black and red) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate

The Falcons brought in Arthur Smith in the hopes he could jumpstart their offense after he led one of the NFL’s more efficient offenses in 2020. But he unfortunately inherited a team on its way down. The Falcons traded Julio Jones in the offseason and Calvin Ridley played just five games before calling it a season for non-injury reasons. So both elements of arguably the most talented 1-2 punch at wide receiver were gone by Week 6 and they were left with underwhelming journeymen and a rookie tight end. They tried their best.

Between Cordarrelle Patterson, a 30-year old hybrid player who had never eclipsed 250 rushing yards in a season before 2021, and Mike Davis, a career 3.7 yards per carry running back, they had no run game either. On top of that, they faced the 4th-toughest schedule of opposing defenses on the season. Matt Ryan was constantly under pressure, forcing a low-depth passing game. These passes predictably did not generate a lot of yards after the catch, given the weapons he was throwing to. This was a really difficult situation for Ryan and Arthur Smith.

Despite these conditions, Ryan evaded pressure extremely well. He allowed the 9th-fewest sacks per pressure and delivered the 11th-best on-target percentage on his throws. In other words, he was under pressure but avoiding sacks and throwing accurately. Despite a low-depth passing game, the Falcons led the NFL in the percentage of total yards obtained through the air (versus on the ground or after the catch). These stats confirm what I saw on film: a good quarterback doing his best with a bad situation.

With no run game to speak of, the Falcons were simply unable to take advantage against teams that allowed for successful run games. Chart A shows the Falcons’ Adjusted Effectiveness on offense (which measures relative performance) against each opponent ranked by its adjusted line yards allowed to opposing ground games. Teams on the left typically won on the defensive line and shut down good run games, whereas teams on the right were vulnerable to yards before contact. The Falcons played four bad games – factoring in the quality of opponent – against the Patriots, Jags, Lions, and Giants. They simply lacked the running back talent to capitalize.

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent adjusted line yards allowed on the season.
*Adjusted Line Yards data from Football Outsiders.

Ultimately, the offense was held together by Matt Ryan. He is not washed up. He may look older than his age but he’s only 36. He has never been an elite quarterback but he can read defenses fairly well and throw all the routes. He can put clutch throws right on the money, and still threw accurately up to 40 yards downfield last season. He did the best he could with the weapons he had. Three of the Falcons’ seven wins involved Ryan delivering in the clutch to set up a winning field goal as time expired. They probably didn’t deserve to be 7-10 based on their point differential, but having a clutch quarterback can swing those close games. Now he has left town to join the Colts.

When you take a competent quarterback away from a bad situation, the result typically is not pretty. Marcus Mariota has been one of the top backup quarterbacks in the NFL but it’s been a long time since he has taken the starter reins from Week 1. The Falcons will try to assemble a competent offense in Ryan’s wake with exciting rookie Drake London alongside Kyle Pitts, who should take a step forward in year 2. But I have no idea how they plan to revitalize the run game. I do like Damien Williams, who should be an upgrade from Mike Davis. This is very much a low-upside, rebuilding offense, and I would not be surprised to see the top quarterback prospect in the 2023 draft taking over next season.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Defensive Eff. Rating (red and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate

The defense was even worse. They did not have the excuse of playing a difficult schedule as they faced the easiest overall schedule of opposing offenses that featured two games against the Panthers and Saints as well as matchups against the Giants, Washington, Jets, Dolphins, Jaguars, and Lions. Despite this unimposing schedule, the Falcons got roasted consistently, especially by opposing passing games.

The primary issue was that they simply could not get to the quarterback. Amazingly, the Falcons were dead last in both pressure rate and the conversion rate of pressures to sacks. This led to a total of 18 sacks on the entire season, a full 11 fewer than the second-worst team. When you put up that number against the schedule of offenses they faced, it’s not a good sign. A defense that cannot pressure the quarterback stands no chance in today’s NFL.

They were slightly better against the run, at least by the numbers. But context matters here. When a team often faces a deficit, especially late in games, it’s easy to predict run plays and therefore stop them. Bad teams often put up good numbers against the run for this reason. This did help them perform relatively well against the most efficient running teams, as shown by Chart B, which measures the Falcons’ defensive effectiveness relative to opponent by each team’s rushing EPA/play on the season.

Chart B

But putting it another way, they performed worse against teams that didn’t run well because running the ball was unnecessary to succeed against the Falcons. A.J. Terrell took a step forward in year two, but may have benefitted from an easy schedule of opposing #1 wide receivers. The Falcons only faced two top-10 receivers on the year (Deebo Samuel and Stefon Diggs). Granted, both players had a subpar game against Atlanta, so perhaps Terrell deserves some credit.

But it’s also easier to perform well against #1 wide receivers when the other team has so many other good options to go to. The Falcons played bad defense against both the Bills and 49ers so it didn’t matter that Diggs and Samuel were not huge factors in those games. They didn’t need to be. It reminds me of James Bradberry’s performance for the Giants in 2020, which was solid in part because offenses just spread the ball around against the Giants and Bradberry looked good for doing his job well. Cornerback is also a high-variance position, so there’s a good chance we see some drop-off from Terrell in 2022, especially if the rest of the defense plays as poorly as it did.

It’s tough to fix a broken pass rush all at once. They spent their early draft capital on a wide receiver but nabbed Ebiketie in round two, who many consider a strong prospect. The hope is that Ebiketie can help take some pressure off Grady Jarrett. But they lost Foye Oluakon, the NFL’s leading tackler in 2021. Long term, they are headed in the right direction by prioritizing pass rush but may not be as strong against the run. This is a complete rebuild and they will need a lot of help, particularly getting to the quarterback. My guess is they are at least a year away from fielding a competitive defense.

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the Falcons: I’m likely avoiding the Falcons early. In general I don’t like betting into uncertainty and we don’t really know what this team will look like in 2021. But I’m definitely not looking to back them, as I think they could be one of the worst teams in the NFL. But with lots of young talent, they could be valuable later in the season once expectations hit rock bottom.

When to fade the Falcons: If the market prices in optimism that Mariota will succeed, Drake London will have an immediate impact, and Kyle Pitts will realize his potential, there could be value fading the Falcons. Sometimes winning early is about fading a bad team until the market catches up, and that is on the table for this team.

Evaluating the offseason so far: Moving on from the Matt Ryan era could lead to some growing pains. Fans hope Mariota is more than a stopgap option, but I think he only gets one year as the starter. They are eating Ryan’s cap space and rebuilding this year. With talented young players in key positions (WR, CB, Edge), they are going about it the right way.

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