Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
13 Nov 2012
by Rivers McCown
Given the state of today's NFL, where anything perfect has to be picked apart before it even fails, it's likely that you already knew that the Falcons had actual problems that transcended their record before Sunday's loss to the Saints. To summarize: The Falcons have played one of the weakest schedules in the NFL and came into Sunday's games with the 30th-ranked running offense and the 25th-ranked rushing defense.
The problems in the run game on both sides of the ball were the main reason that we put them on Upset Watch against the Cowboys last week, and they were definitely a big problem for Atlanta in this game. The main highlight was, of course, Chris Ivory's thorough de-pantsing of the Atlanta secondary, where Asante Samuel kinda decided that tackling wasn't for him on the play, Thomas DeCoud blew an actual attempt at a tackle, and Dunta Robinson was stiff-armed into oblivion while Ivory nearly made a circle eight around the field. Even setting that play aside though, the Falcons had serious problems stopping New Orleans on a play-by-play basis, and the Saints were consistently able to stay on schedule. Then again, without their best linebacker, Sean Weatherspoon, some sort of dropoff was to be expected from the Atlanta defense.
More telling, though, were the problems Atlanta had running the football. The Saints came into the game with our 30th-ranked rush defense, ahead of only Indianapolis and Buffalo, and completely stonewalled the Falcons. The Falcons were staked to an early 10-0 lead thanks to a quick jaunt down the field and a Drew Brees interception in New Orleans territory. They led for almost the entirety of the first half, and never trailed by more than 11 points. Despite that, Atlanta ran the ball on just 18 plays. They threw the ball 53 times.
It wasn't hard to see why when you ran the tape back. It's been common knowledge for quite a while that Michael Turner is a dump truck at this point -- he plods, he has problems cutting, and if you stop his momentum it takes him a couple of seconds to get his burst back. Jacquizz Rodgers is a fine change-of-pace back, but nobody you want to give twenty carries to if you can prevent it. These backs are going to get what is blocked for them, period.
And, on Sunday, they just didn't see much daylight. If we remove an eight-yard Rodgers draw play to run the clock out in the second quarter, the Falcons gained just 37 yards on 17 carries. The main issue from a scouting perspective was the handiwork of center Todd McClure, who was beat in the backfield on multiple plays and had trouble getting to the second level when asked to. But nobody on that line had a performance that I'd qualify as "good," and at this point I'm not sure I'd say anyone but guard Justin Blalock was above-average in this game.
How bad did it get for Atlanta? They had 14 goal-to-go situations in this game, and handed the ball off just four times. On all four of those carries, Turner gained either zero or minus-one yards. With a completely one-dimensional offense, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was left to try things like the Mike Johnson tackle-eligible touchdown and frequent end-around and screen action with Julio Jones just to try to get some pressure off Matt Ryan in the pocket.
Well, we're not seeing much disagreement from the numbers here. After starting the season with seven of our first eight games being upsets in the eyes of VOA, we've now had two in a row where VOA agrees with the result.
|The Dirty Bird|
|Team||OFF VOA||DEF VOA||ST VOA||TOTAL VOA|
In DVOA, the Falcons actually have a negative offensive score -- that's what happens when you play one of the three worst seasonal defenses in the NFL. The Saints defense moves from 8.6% to 3.3% with adjustments. Has the New Orleans defense left the zone of the laughable given this and their barely above-average game against Philadelphia? It's not too late for another playoff push.
In Audibles this week, Mike Smith's decision to kick a field goal down four from the New Orleans 2 with nine minutes left in the game caused mild-mannered Tom Gower to lose his sh*t:
Tom Gower: YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME, MIKE SMITH, KICKING A FIELD GOAL IN THE FOURTH QUARTER DOWN 4 POINTS FROM THE 2-YARD LINE [numerous expletives deleted for sensitive eyes because Tom is boring -Tom].
Watching the whole game though, I can see the thought process behind the decision. The worst-case scenario for Atlanta is that they get a chance to march down the field after a New Orleans touchdown with an opportunity to tie the game. And if New Orleans can only tack on a field goal, or can be held, Atlanta still has a chance to win the game. Meanwhile, Atlanta's short-yardage offense had been non-existent. So non-existent that even noted-fourth-down-risk-taker Mike Smith declined to give it a go.
I'm not saying this is the kind of call that makes Smith the sharpest crayon in the box, but I found it defensible in the circumstances. The number one thing we need to look out for when we trot out our fourth-down math is accounting for circumstantial evidence that computer models cannot. While I'm sure the odds are still going to favor going for it, the lack of a run game makes this a reasoned decision rather than a crazy one.
New Orleans has had some struggles getting its offense to play at their 2011-level this season, and while early on it looked like Marques Colston was having problems catching the ball due to his injury, it turns out that Jimmy Graham's injury problems were really holding things up.
Graham came into the weekend with just seven DYAR to his name, on a -5.7% DVOA. This after finishing second in tight end DYAR in 2011, behind only Rob Gronkowski. After something of a questionable start, Graham hurt his ankle and admitted he couldn't really push off of it well until last Monday's game against the Eagles. Let's see how the statistics conform to that notion:
|DYAR Weeks 1-8||DYAR Weeks 9-10||DVOA Weeks 1-8||DVOA Weeks 9-10|
Sounds like he might be on to something there.
The New Orleans offense seems to be humming at full capacity for the first time all season. Graham, in particular, was a a bigger part of the game plan and showed why he is such a difficult cover. To demonstrate, we are going to show two plays where he draws two different defenders, and beats them in their own element each time.
0:34 in the second quarter, second-and-4 from the Atlanta 14
|The Saints come out with a shotgun set with a slot receiver to the left and Graham inline. The Falcons counter with their nickel set and bring linebacker Stephen Nicholas up to the line to bump Graham.|
|Except Nicholas doesn't really get a good jam on Graham at all, and is trailing in the play from the beginning thanks to Graham's initial burst off the line.|
|Nicholas then falls down, and Brees delivers a strike to Graham underneath the safety for an easy score.|
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
7:09 in the fourth quarter, third-and-5 from the New Orleans 42
|The Saints go shotgun again, this time they have their three receivers to the right and Graham split out wide to the left. The Falcons counter with safety William Moore, someone who has a better chance to stay with Graham outside.|
|Graham goes into a quick in route, something he had done multiple times in this game, but...|
|...actually it's an out-and-up, and Moore buys it hook, line, and sinker. He has zero chance to recover. DeCoud, who was playing center field, also bites to the inside on Graham's first action.|
|Brees hits Graham about 23 yards past the line of scrimmage, and he has enough space to rumble forward for another 23 before the Falcons catch up, putting the Saints in field-goal range.|
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
With his natural ability to separate, as well as his wide catching radius, Graham is almost an impossible assignment one-on-one. Unfortunately, when the rest of the New Orleans offense is playing as well as they did on Sunday, sometimes defenses are left with little choice.
6 comments, Last at 20 Nov 2012, 2:46pm by Rivers McCown