Atlanta Falcons 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Falcons won 13 games last year, but largely did so with smoke and mirrors and in a way that won’t be sustainable into 2013. 7 of those 13 wins came by a touchdown or less as they went 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, something that tends to even out in the long run. While they did outscore opponents by a total of 120 points on the season (not unimpressive, though it was surpassed by San Francisco, Seattle, New England, and Denver), they actually outgained opponents by 57 yards total on the season. For example, while they ranked 5th in the NFL allowing 18.7 points per game, they were 20th in the NFL in YPA allowed, 29th in YPC allowed, and 24th in total yards allowed. On a per play basis, they were actually outgained on the season, allowing 5.9 yards per play, as opposed to just 5.8 yards per play gained.

A lot of this had to do with their superb turnover differential as they had 13 more takeaways than giveaways. That tends to be unsustainable on a year-to-year basis. For example, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers on average turn the ball over 25.5 times the following season, while teams that turn the ball over 35 or more times turn the ball over 28.1 times the following season. Teams with 20 or fewer takeaways take the ball away an average of 25.3 times the following season, while teams with 35 or more takeaways take the ball away an average of 27.3 times the following season. Teams with a turnover differential of +15 or higher have a turnover differential of +3.6 the following season, while teams with a turnover differential of -15 have a turnover differential of +1.5 the following season.

Turnovers and takeaways are incredibly hard to predict on year-to-year and even a game-to-game basis (teams with a turnover differential of +4 or higher and teams with a turnover differential of -4 or lower both average a turnover differential of +0.0 in the following game). Just look at safety Thomas DeCoud, who led the Falcons with 6 interceptions last season. In his previous 3 seasons as a starter, he had 8 interceptions total. We’re talking about what players do on a tiny fraction of their snaps so it’s going to be inconsistent.

While I don’t expect Matt Ryan to see his interception total suddenly balloon, it’s very unlikely that the Falcons lose just 4 fumbles all season in 2012. It’s also unlikely that the Falcons recover 64.3% of fumbles that hit the ground next season. The Falcons also face a tougher schedule in 2013, which should help neutralize that turnover advantage.

In 2012, the Falcons faced just 2 playoff teams in the regular season. While they did defeat both of them, they did so by a combined 13 points and both games came in week 5 or earlier. They beat Denver in Peyton Manning’s 2nd game back and Washington in a game that Robert Griffin got hurt with a lead. Once in the playoffs, they drew Seattle, a West Coast team at a 1 PM ET start and a team that was 4-5 on the road to that point in the season (they would have been 3-6 if Griffin hadn’t gotten hurt against them the previous week) and they still only won that game by 2. The following week, they were eliminated at home by San Francisco, easily their toughest opponent of the season.

This year, they draw the NFC West (arguably the best division in football) and the AFC East rather than the NFC East and the AFC West, as they did last year. They trade out games against Arizona and Detroit for games against Washington and Green Bay and all 3 of their division foes are better than they were last season.

Simply put, if they want to win 13 games again or even 10-12 games, they’ll have to play better than they did last season. In terms of DVOA, which does a fantastic job of normalizing NFL team’s play regardless of their raw win-loss record, the Falcons actually ranked 10th in the NFL last season and they were 13th in terms of weighted DVOA, which weighs games later in the season more heavily.

I liken the 2012 Falcons to a 4 or 5 seed in the NBA that has a 13-3 stretch, not uncommon for that caliber of a team, but not indicative of the team’s level of talent. A significant decline in wins wouldn’t even be inconsistent with history as 13-win teams, on average, win 9.5 games the following season, but I think everything I’ve mentioned so far suggests that they could be even worse than that, in the neighborhood of 8-9 wins. The NFC is a loaded conference and there might not be room for them in the playoffs.

Almost every year, a team goes from a 1st round bye to out of the playoffs and I think of the 4 candidates from 2012 (Denver, New England, and San Francisco), Atlanta is the most vulnerable. Denver and New England are pretty much guaranteed playoff spots in their crappy conference barring injuries to Brady or Manning. Meanwhile, San Francisco, as they showed last season, is simply a more talented team than the Falcons, maybe more talented than any team in the NFL.

Quarterback

Dirk Koetter’s arrival in Atlanta led to Matt Ryan attempting a career high 615 passes last season, which led to a career high in completions (422), yards (4719), and touchdowns (32). He was also the most efficient he’s ever been on a per play basis, ranking 5th in the NFL with a 99.4 QB rating, a career high. Also a career high was his 68.6% completion percentage and his 7.7 yards per attempt were the 2nd highest of his career. While he did throw 14 interceptions, his interception rate of 2.3% was actually right in line with his career average. He could see inferior production this season as a result of a tougher schedule, though not a lot inferior and if they do miss the playoffs, it won’t be on him.

Grade: A-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

One thing that really helps Matt Ryan is his great receiving corps. The best way to describe his receiving corps would be to call them top heavy, meaning it’s 3 guys who are superb and then little else. No team in the NFL had their top 3 receivers play a higher percentage of possible snaps than Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez, who played a combined 2823 of a possible 3219 snaps, 87.7%. They also received 386 of Matt Ryan’s 592 “aimed” pass attempts, 65.2%, caught 264 of Matt Ryan’s 422 completions, 62.6%, totaled 3479 of Matt Ryan’s 4719 yards, 72.7%, and 25 of his 32 touchdowns, 78.1%, all most in the NFL. Ryan completed 68.4% of his passes for an average of 9.0 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions when throwing to that trio and they only dropped 15 passes between them.

All three return for this season with minor concerns. For one, Roddy White is heading into his age 32 season, so some statistical drop off is to be expected. He’s already noticeably less explosive than he was in his prime and he averaged just 3.6 yards average catch per catch last season. He’s much more of a possession receiver than anything else at this point in his career, though a very good one at that.

Tony Gonzalez, meanwhile, is even older, heading into his age 37 season and his 2.7 yards after catch per catch were even less than White’s. His mere 10.0 yards per catch also shows a lack of explosiveness and while he was a great possession receiver last year, he did have 13 fewer catches the year before and 23 fewer two years before that. I think it’s much more likely that his production falls off drastically than White’s and he also can’t run block at all. Fortunately, Julio Jones is heading into his 3rd year in the league, a year when receivers tend to break out, as if a receiver who caught 79 passes for 1198 yards and 10 touchdowns in his age 23 season could break out any more. I expect him to be their leading receiver though.

After them, however, no one else had more than 402 receiving yards and the player who had those 402 receiving yards was backup running back Jacquizz Rodgers. Harry Douglas, the #3 receiver, was largely inefficient with 396 receiving yards on 420 routes run, 4th worst in the NFL on a per route basis. Part of that is just that there weren’t a lot of balls to go around after the aforementioned trio, but part of it is on him too and he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 95th ranked wide receiver out of 105 eligible.

At tight end after Tony Gonzalez, the player with the next most snaps played in 2012 was Michael Palmer, who played just 180, as the Falcons used two-tight ends the least out of any team in the NFL. That could change in 2013 though with the addition of Levine Toilolo in the 4th round of the draft. Toilolo is the exact opposite of a seam stretcher, but he can block at an NFL level and at 6-8 he’s a real threat as a possession receiver down around the goal line. He’s not Tony Gonzalez’ future replacement or anything, but he can at least be someone like Scott Chandler and he should surpass those 180 snaps played.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

One of the reasons the Falcons were able to win despite barely winning the yardage battle in 2012 was their lack of penalties. Including special teams, they were penalized a league low 68 times in 2012 and their history in the Mike Smith era suggests that’s no fluke. They were the least penalized team in the NFL in 2010, the 3rd least in 2009, and actually the least penalized team in the league over the past 5 seasons. That’s something that, unlike record in close games and turnover differential, is sustainable. However, some personnel changes on the offensive line may negatively affect that because of a lack of continuity.

Since Sam Baker took over at left tackle in 2009, 4 of the 5 spots have been the same for the Falcons on the offensive line in all 4 seasons, with the exception being right guard and I think that has a lot to do with why their offensive line committed just 15 penalties last season. Sam Baker, Justin Blalock, Todd McClure, and Tyson Clabo have been together for 4 seasons and last year they missed a combined 24 snaps in the regular and post-season combined.

However, while Baker was re-signed for 6 years this off-season and Blalock remains, center Todd McClure retired after 14 seasons with the Falcons, while right tackle Tyson Clabo was a cap casualty. In McClure’s place, Peter Konz will shift from right guard to center, with Garrett Reynolds taking over at right guard. Meanwhile, Lamar Holmes will start at right tackle.

Konz and Holmes were their 2nd and 3rd round picks respectively in the 2012 NFL Draft and the Falcons, who haven’t had a lot of draft picks of late because of the Julio Jones trade, really need them to pay dividends. Konz was a steal in the 2nd round and, while he struggled mightily as a rookie at right guard, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 76th ranked guard out of 81 eligible, he should be better in his 2nd season in the league at center, his natural position. Holmes, however, is much more of a question mark. On top of that, Reynolds, the new starter at right guard, was ProFootballFocus’ 64th ranked guard out of 78 eligible in 2011, despite making just 11 starts. The right side of the offensive line is a concern, not just in pass protection and run blocking, but penalty wise as well.

Fortunately, things are much more familiar on the left side. Sam Baker has, more or less, been the starter at left tackle for 4 seasons now, but he hasn’t always been good. In 2009, he was a league average starter. In 2010, he was ProFootballFocus’ 69th ranked tackle out of 78 eligible. In 2011, 60th out of 76 eligible despite making just 8 starts due to injury.

He got everything together for his contract year in 2012, when he graded out as the 27th ranked offensive tackle and he was rewarded with a rich 6-year contract this off-season. The Falcons will obviously be hoping that’s not a mistake, but it could be if Baker’s past struggles or injury woes rear their heads once more. Alec Savoie, an undrafted free agent, is listed as the backup left tackle, though reserve right tackle Mike Johnson is likely to be the game day swing tackle.

The most reliable starter on the offensive line is Blalock at left guard, who hasn’t missed a snap, post-season or otherwise, in any of the last 5 seasons. He’s been an unspectacular player, grading out most recently just barely below average, but he doesn’t commit penalties or miss snaps and in 2010 he was ProFootballFocus’ 12th ranked guard. Overall though, there are plenty of concerns on this offensive line. They ranked 14th in the NFL in pass block efficiency last season. They may be in the bottom half in 2013.

Grade: B-

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Running Backs

The Falcons didn’t run block that well in 2012, but it might not have mattered as Michael Turner was probably the worst starting running back in the NFL last season. There’s a reason he doesn’t have a job as of this writing. Turner averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, broke off a run of 20 or more roughly once a month, struggled in short yardage situations, caught just 19 passes, and got arrested for DUI. He simply didn’t have any NFL level skills. While he led the team in carries, he actually played fewer snaps than “2nd string” running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who was a valuable change of pace and pass catching back.

Steven Jackson, who was brought in to replace Turner, can’t be worse, but Falcons fans might not be getting the guy they’re expecting. He turns 30 in July and has 2395 career carries. He’s 26th all-time in rushing yards at 10,135, but the average top-25 all-time running back has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. And after players have their drop off, they average just 169 carries per season at 3.5 yards per carry and just 5 touchdowns, so they’re really a non-factor as a back. He should have one more good year in him, but there are no guarantees at this point in his career.

With Jackson coming in, it’s unclear what role Rodgers will have. Rodgers did well in 2012, catching 53 passes, to go with 94 carries, but Jackson is also a good pass catcher and unlike Turner will stay on the field in passing downs. Rodgers should go back to being a true backup and he’ll be insurance in case father time finally beats Jackson. Jackson doesn’t have a ton of explosive burst at this point in his career so Rodgers’ speed will serve well as a complement.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Falcons may run more different fronts on a regular basis than any team in the NFL under Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan, so the best way to categorize their front 7 players is into interior defensive linemen, edge rushers, and non-pass rushing linebackers. Starting with their interior defensive linemen, they used a rotation of 4 guys last season and would frequently play 3 at the same time. They lost one of that foursome, Vance Walker, to free agency and he was actually the highest rated of the bunch last season. This means that Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry, and Corey Peters will have to play more snaps this season and that the inexperienced Travian Robertson will move into the rotation. There have also been rumors about them signing Richard Seymour, but for now I will only discuss the guys actually on their roster.

While the departed Walker was their best interior defensive lineman last season, Jonathan Babineaux is probably the most talented of the bunch. While Walker had one good season in 2012, Babineaux has graded out above average in each of the last 5 seasons, topping out as ProFootballFocus’ #1 rated defensive tackle in 2009 and their #13 rated defensive tackle in 2011, and he’s led their defensive line in snaps played in 4 of the last 5 seasons. Last season actually might have been his worst season in the last 5 years, as he graded out just above average, struggling against the run, but managing 6 sacks, 4 hits, and 20 hurries on 566 pass rush snaps. He turns 32 this season so that’s a concern.

Jerry and Peters, meanwhile, both graded out well below average last season. Peters was the worst offender as only one defensive tackle graded out lower than him last season and no one had a worse run stopping grade at his position. Jerry was better, but only by default, grading out 64th out of 85 eligible. Robertson, meanwhile, was a 2012 7th round pick who only played 47 regular season snaps so it’s tough to count on him. Walker will be missed.

Someone else who will be missed is John Abraham. Abraham is going into his age 35 season this year, doesn’t play the run well, and was on a snap count, but there’s something to be said for being an incredibly efficient pass rusher and that’s what Abraham was last season, though he did completely fade away in their post-season games and not record a single pressure. However, in the regular season, he was ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end both overall and rushing the passer and he had 10 sacks, 8 hits, and 36 hurries on 436 pass rush snaps, a 12.4% rate. They technically could still bring him back if they wanted to as he’s still available thanks to his ridiculous asking price, but all reports say that the bridge between Abraham and the Falcons is burned. For a team that only had 30 sacks in 2012, 33 if you include the post-season, he’ll be greatly missed.

They brought in Osi Umenyiora to replace him, but he’s not the same. Once a very good pass rusher, Umenyiora has been a league average player for the most part in the 4 seasons since returning from a torn ACL suffered in 2008 and he’s heading into his age 33 season. He doesn’t play the run well nor does he rush the passer well enough to make up for it, with 6 sacks, 7 hits, and 32 hurries on 422 pass rush snaps last season, a 10.7% rate. He also doesn’t have any experience in a 3-4 so he probably won’t play in any packages that require edge rushers to rush from a standing position and potentially drop into coverage.

Kroy Biermann, meanwhile, is expected to be the other starting edge rusher. He is more comfortable playing a rush linebacker position than Umenyiora, but he’s also shown a startling inability to get to the quarterback since a mini breakout season in 2010, grading out well below average in that aspect in each of the last 2 seasons. The Falcons also have a stable of young, inexperienced pass rushers on the roster as they’ve taken Malliciah Goodman (4th round in 2013), Jonathan Massaquoi (5th round in 2012), Cliff Matthews (7th round in 2011), and Stansly Maponga (5th round in 2013), in the late rounds in the last few drafts. It’s tough to count on them for much though, so pass rush is really going to be hard to come by.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Poor defensive line play was a big part of the reason why the Falcons ranked 29th in the league, surrendering 4.8 yards per carry, but poor linebacker play was also part of it. Sean Weatherspoon, a 2010 1st round pick and a breakout star of their 2011 season, inexplicably had a poor year in 2012, grading out below average overall and struggling massively against the run. No 4-3 outside linebacker had a worse grade in that regard last season, though good coverage ability and consistently impressive blitz ability helped make up for that somewhat. He was ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011 and he did have a bit of a knee problem last year, so maybe that was it, but it’s still tough to know what they’re going to get from him.

Stephen Nicholas, meanwhile, is the other non-passing linebacker. He was the opposite of Weatherspoon, grading out above average against the run, but struggling mightily in coverage. He should really be only a two-down third linebacker who comes off the field in base packages, but the Falcons don’t have enough depth at linebacker for him to serve in that role.

Their 3rd linebacker will once again be Akeem Dent, though they rarely use 3 linebackers, coming out in sub packages more than any team in the league besides Green Bay and San Francisco and also frequently using 5 defensive lineman (3 interior guys and 2 edge rushers). Dent graded out slightly below average on actually 504 snaps, though that was more due to injuries than his role actually being in demand for this team. Their tendency to use 5 defensive backs also likely contributed to their poor play against the run.

Grade: C+

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Secondary

For a team that used an extra defensive back so often, you’d think they’d rank higher than 20th against the pass in terms of yards per allowed. San Francisco and Green Bay ranked 2nd and 8th respectively. However, you can blame their pass rush a lot for that. Their best defensive back was actually the nickel back Robert McClain, who had the highest grade in their secondary and actually their 2nd highest grade overall defensively behind Abraham, which speaks a lot to the lack of talent they have on this side of the ball.

McClain, coming into the lineup for an injured Brent Grimes, was ProFootballFocus’ 12th ranked cornerback last season. Only 6 players allowed a lower QB rating when thrown on while covering the slot and only 3 allowed fewer yards per slot cover snap. The Falcons used a 1st round pick on Desmond Trufant to insure that McClain could stay on the slot. Trufant will replace Dunta Robinson, a good tackling cornerback, but a stiff cover man who won’t be missed that much. Still, it’ll be tough to rely on a rookie cornerback, especially in the first half of the season.

The other starting cornerback is Asante Samuel. Samuel was really Robinson’s opposite last year, covering well, but in typical Asante Samuel fashion missing numerous tackles, leading all cornerbacks with 18. He allowed just 41 catches on 77 attempts for 596 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 2 penalties, which is impressive, but he’s now 32 years old and won’t age that well considering his game is built on quickness, jumping routes, and taking chances. The Falcons drafted another cornerback, Robert Alford, in the 2nd round to be his eventual successor in 2014 and beyond, but for now Samuel, Trufant, and McClain will be their top-3 cornerbacks and see the field together often. It’s not an untalented bunch, but there are questions and lack of pass rush will hurt.

Thomas DeCoud will man one safety spot. I mentioned the 6 interceptions he had in the opening, but as I said, takeaways are very inconsistent. It’s important not to judge a guy on what he does on 6 snaps and overall DeCoud was a below average player last year, covering pretty well, but missing 21 tackles, 2nd most in the NFL among players at any position. Ironically, he graded out better in 2011, though not by much, when he had just 4 interceptions. He’s an average starter.

William Moore is the other starter at safety. He was given a 5-year contract this off-season, but he’s struggled to stay healthy thus far in his career, playing in just 42 of a possible 64 regular season games since being taken in the 2nd round in 2009. Ironically, his healthiest season, 2010, was his lowest rated season, but he’s graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, grading out as ProFootballFocus 11th and 18th ranked safety in 2011 and 2012 respectively despite limited playing time. As long as he’s on the field, he’ll be an asset.

Overall though, I find it very hard to believe that the Falcons will have another top-5 scoring defense. The schedule will be harder, their talent level is lower, and they were 24th in terms of yards allowed last season. I like Mike Nolan a lot and I think he’s one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL and he won’t allow them to be awful, but if they do, in fact, miss the playoffs, it’s going to be much more on their defense than their offense.

Grade: B

Head Coach

Mike Smith doesn’t get his name mentioned among the best Head Coaches in the NFL, but that probably has more to do with the fact that his name is Mike Smith than anything. He took over a team in shambles following the Michael Vick arrest, the Bobby Petrino resignation, and the Joey Harrington playing quarterback fiasco and has taken them to the playoffs in 4 of his first 5 seasons in the league, with the one exception being a season in which what Matt Ryan missed 3 games. His regular season numbers are on par with John Harbaugh, though Harbaugh has the ring.

Smith’s Falcon teams have almost always had very few penalties, won a high percentage of their close games, and won the turnover battle. While the latter two tend to be unsustainable, Smith’s Falcon teams are almost at the point where we can consider them an outlier and the former is very sustainable, though with personnel turnover that will be tougher this season and he may overall have his work cut out for him if he wants to make it 5 playoff appearances in 6 seasons. He does have help from two great coordinators in Dirk Koetter and especially Mike Nolan.

Grade: A-

Overall

Overall, the Falcons have an above average offense and a below average defense and their offense is better than their defense is bad, if that makes any sense. However, they’re nowhere near the 13 win team they were last season and they have a brutal schedule in the loaded NFC South, facing a 1st place schedule in the loaded NFC, and also taking on the loaded NFC West in their non-divisional games.

Inside the division, I think 4-2 is the best case scenario, which 3-3 being more likely. They could also go 2-4. Even last year, they were 3-3 in the division. Every team in the division is improved. Carolina, who beat them easily once and could have done so a 2nd time, should be able to win at least one game against them and the same goes for the Saints.

Outside of the division, they host St. Louis, the Jets, Seattle, Washington, and New England. They do rarely lose at home and they luck out by getting to play Seattle at 1 PM on the East Coast, but, with the exception of the Jets, that’s a tough schedule and they won’t win all of those games, with New England being the most likely loss. They also go to Miami, Buffalo, Arizona, Green Bay, and San Francisco. Green Bay and San Francisco will likely be losses and any of the other 3 games could be trap games considering that this isn’t a very good road team. Overall, it looks like 8 or 9 wins, but for the sake of parity, I’ll call it 8. Either way, I have them on the outside looking in with the 7th or 8th best record in the NFC. If they were in the AFC, they’d be an 11 win team, but that’s not the case.

Projection: 8-8 3rd in NFC South

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