Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

04 Oct 2016

Any Given Sunday: Falcons Over Panthers

by Sterling Xie

This exact matchup made an appearance in Any Given Sunday last December, when the Falcons stunned the 14-0 Panthers in the Georgia Dome to hand Carolina its only regular-season loss. This time, though, Atlanta earned far more than a moral victory to end a disappointing second half of the season, while a Carolina team which looked far from perfect headed in appears even more flawed coming out.

The Falcons victory had significant implications for not only our perception of the NFC hierarchy, but also the playoff race. Headed into the week, ESPN's Football Power Index pegged this as the game with the highest playoff leverage of any contest on the Week 4 slate. Both teams saw their conditional playoff probability affected by a range of over 28 percent based on Sunday's outcome, the two largest swings in the league:

Atlanta now effectively holds a 2.5-game lead over the defending NFC champs. It's tempting to still feel as though the Panthers are one hot streak away from clawing back to the top; when both teams sat at 5-0 last season, it would have seemed unfathomable that Carolina would have the division clinched by Thanksgiving. But this result wasn't as stunning as last year's upset, and ultimately serves as a reminder for both teams that it's not 2015 anymore.

The League's Best Offense?

The whole "Who have they played?" argument is an easy line to default to this early in the season, and it certainly gave Falcons skeptics a plausible reason for doubting Atlanta's hot offense-driven start. Through three games, Atlanta ranked ninth in overall DVOA with one of the more schizophrenic profiles you'll see: the second-ranked offense, 32nd-ranked defense, and top-ranked special teams. But those rankings were with no opponent adjustments in place, and a fair number of teams could post great unadjusted point totals against Atlanta's slate of the Bucs, Raiders, and Saints, who entered the weekend with a combined 3-6 record.

However, when a team posts 48 points and 571 total yards against the sixth-ranked defense (and the No. 2 defense from 2015), asking who they've played starts to sound a little silly. We'll get to the efficiency numbers in a bit, but there are so many jaw-dropping raw offensive totals from this game. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones each broke franchise single-game yardage records by substantial margins. The latter became the fourth player since 1960 to eclipse the 300-yard receiving barrier in a game, joining Calvin Johnson, Flipper Anderson and Stephone Paige. Moreover, Jones became the sixth player in that timeframe to record double-digit receptions and average more than 25 yards per catch in a game.

Remarkably, the Falcons had three touchdown drives longer than 90 yards, a staggering feat against any defense, let alone an ostensibly competent one like Carolina's. Such drives aren't rare anymore, but the Falcons somehow already have four such drives this season (they also had one last week against New Orleans). That's equal to the second-highest total from 2015, and only Seattle (five) had more in 16 games last year than Atlanta has through four.

Ironically, even though this game will reside near the front of the Julio Jones scrapbook when we look back at his career, it was made possible partly because the Falcons offense has been so good without relying solely on its superstar receiver. While Jones remains the clear No. 1 in the passing game, Atlanta's long-neglected secondary targets have seen a sizable uptick in opportunity compared to 2015.

The top secondary options like Mohamed Sanu and Jacob Tamme haven't necessarily distinguished themselves as great second bananas, but the difference is in the depth of quality options this season. There typically isn't any room for fifth receiving options, even in the most prolific passing games, but the Falcons have had at least six players receive three or more targets each of the past three weeks. And in the red zone, where offenses frequently zero in on a select few options, six players have garnered at least three targets this year. Strangely, Jones has yet to haul in any of his three red zone targets, leaving Tamme and Justin Hardy to do the most damage near the goal line.

So when the Falcons produced despite each of their first three opponents gameplanning to erase Jones, it boded well for an offense which often leaned too heavily on its superstar. Sure enough, the Panthers employed an unusual amount of single coverage on Jones, perhaps recognizing the need to respect Atlanta's distribution pattern. By roughly 1:30 p.m. EST, it became evident that the Panthers had chosen poorly.

There will still be plenty of Falcons skeptics who remember last season's 3-8 finish following a 5-0 start, and that school of thought isn't necessarily wrong. With brutal road trips to Denver and Seattle over the next two weeks, there's a fairly strong possibility Atlanta returns home 3-3 and tied with the Panthers (who get to host Tampa Bay and visit New Orleans) by Week 7.

Previously successful Atlanta teams since 2008 haven't typically been as lopsided as this one. The Falcons made the playoffs in Ryan's rookie season with a similar good-bad-good distribution between offense, defense and special teams, but the other three postseason squads have been much more balanced.


ATL DVOA Ranks in Playoff Seasons Since 2008
Year O Rank D Rank ST Rank
2008 9 25 7
2010 9 14 3
2011 11 8 22
2012 12 12 16

Maybe the defense will improve if green starters such as Keanu Neal, Vic Beasley, and Deion Jones can ripen by season's end, but the unit overall is a huge morass of unproven youngsters and uninspiring vets, most of whom seemingly hold part-time roles on the roster. The Falcons certainly didn't look like the league's worst defense in stifling Carolina through three quarters, as the Panthers posted a meager -14.6% offensive DVOA with Cam Newton at the helm. Then again, a Derek Anderson-led unit somehow had the ball down one score late in the fourth quarter, scoring 23 points in the final frame.

So Atlanta's defense should rise a little, but likely not enough to give the offense a considerable margin for error (especially when you factor in potential special teams regression). Atlanta's offense peaked at fourth in 2015 after a 4-0 start, so the Falcons have flown near these heights recently. This rendition does boast another year of experience in Kyle Shanahan's offense and a backfield tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman which (to date) has remained healthy and dually productive. Whether or not they can sustain these heights will remain the driving question as the competition gets tougher.

Waiting For Superman

Nationally, it seems like the more prominent reaction from this game has been to fret about the Panthers rather than anoint the Falcons. It's reasonable to hold off on the latter, but how much of Carolina's woes are problems we should have seen coming?

The salary cap forces every team to pick and choose parts of the roster on which they are willing to compromise, and for Dave Gettleman, those areas are at cornerback and on the offensive line. Based on figures from OvertheCap.com, the Panthers rank dead last this year in spending at cornerback, with a cumulative total of roughly $4.7 million. Carolina is actually above-average on the offensive line, but much of that is due to Ryan Kalil, whose $11.8 million cap hit is the highest among all centers this year. At guard and tackle, the Panthers rank 30th and 21st, respectively, in 2016 spending.

There's not much more to say about Carolina's secondary after it conceded more than 500 yards, and no matter how much we harp on the decision to let Josh Norman walk, that train has long since left the station for D.C. In this particular game, the Panthers weren't at full strength on the back end. Thomas Davis, who covers as well as any of Carolina's defensive backs, left on the first drive of the second half with a hamstring injury. Additionally, James Bradberry, who held up well over the first three games, didn't make it through the first half in this game before a toe injury left him hobbled and limited his snap count.

There's reason to believe those injuries made a meaningful difference in this game. Carolina's defense was bad in the first half (13.4% defensive DVOA), but unsightly in a second half (48.0%). The latter figure includes a ghastly 107.3% pass defense DVOA after halftime.

While neither injury appears major, the Panthers don't have much margin for error on the back end. Bené Benwikere, a nice fifth-round find in 2014 who plays well in the slot, has had problems when forced to play outside, and never more so than on Sunday after Bradberry's injury. Carolina has a solid track record of unearthing gems in the secondary, but at the moment, relying so heavily on a second-round rookie speaks volumes about the lack of depth at the position.

Those issues are small potatoes compared to the health of Newton, who has been in harm's way all season. Football Outsiders' charting data indicates that Carolina ranked 28th in offensive pressure rate through three weeks, which isn't likely to rise after Week 4. Newton may be built like a linebacker, but just as Andrew Luck cracked in 2015 under the cumulative weight of hits over the years, it's fair to wonder if Newton is finally showing the same signs. Moreover, while there's no way to measure the impact of each hit, Newton has been on the receiving end of some cringe-worthy shots. Everyone remembers the Denver game from this season, and the hit that knocked him out of this week's game was eerily reminiscent of a similar play from a Week 13 win over the Saints last season. In both instances, he flipped on cruise control too soon before taking a huge lick near the goal line.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Obviously the above scrambles can't be blamed on the offensive line, but given Newton's effectiveness as a power runner, the Panthers have never seemed inclined to cut back his designed runs. In theory, that should place a premium on good pass protection to minimize the number of hits Newton takes when the play design doesn't call for it, but that's not how the Panthers have approached their roster.

Although Carolina did play Sunday without starting left tackle Michael Oher, he's not the type of difference-maker whose return to health would assuage fears about Newton's safety. Stunningly, Gettleman has drafted just three offensive linemen since taking over as general manager in 2013: Edmund Kugbila (fourth round, 2013), Trai Turner (third round, 2014), and Daryl Williams (fourth round, 2015). Turner has become a fine starter, and Williams (who started a right tackle on Sunday) may also turn into a useful player. But apart from the Steelers, who have drafted only two offensive linemen the past four drafts, no team has invested less in the offensive line since 2013.

Unfortunately, that's an issue to address in the offseason, rather than a fixable in-season problem. Offensive lines do often improve throughout the season if they can stay healthy, allowing the same group to get reps together, a hope to which the Panthers will cling for the time being.

It's certainly not too late for Carolina to turn its season around if Newton can get and stay healthy. The schedule is a bit of a mixed bag. The Panthers only have four remaining games against teams currently with winning records, but three of them (Los Angeles, Seattle, and Oakland) are on the road and out West. They also have to play both the Cardinals and Chiefs, though both of those are at home. And of course, they get to host the Falcons rematch in Week 16. If that game still matters, it will be because Newton and the other foundational parts of this roster were able to cover up the increasingly noticeable cracks.

By the VOA

In our first week with opponent adjustments, the Falcons overall figure gets moved slightly downward, while the Panthers figure ticks up. That indicates the direction these two teams are headed, and while Carolina was still ahead of Atlanta in the preseason-influenced DAVE rankings, that might not remain the case any longer this week.


DVOA (Opponent adjustments included)
DVOA OFF DEF ST TOT
CAR -10.4% 32.3% 5.0% -37.7%
ATL 42.3% 5.0% 3.4% 40.7%
VOA (no opponent adjustments)
VOA OFF DEF ST TOT
CAR -3.5% 45.7% 5.0% -44.2%
ATL 44.7% 4.5% 3.4% 43.6%

This game would have represented each team's respective high- and low-water mark in 2015. Atlanta's best single-game DVOA last season was 31.0% in a Week 4 blowout over Houston, while Carolina's worst figure was -24.8% in a narrow escape at New Orleans.

Posted by: Sterling Xie on 04 Oct 2016

2 comments, Last at 06 Oct 2016, 11:03am by LyleNM

Comments

1
by FloydHohl :: Thu, 10/06/2016 - 1:53am

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2
by LyleNM :: Thu, 10/06/2016 - 11:03am

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