by Rivers McCown
I claimed credit in this column a couple weeks ago, when I boasted of correctly calling Mahomes-mania in the staff predictions. Now, it's time to come get your Atlanta Falcons, my pick to make the Super Bowl this season.
When I made that pick, I was looking at Atlanta's defense as a strength. The 2017 Falcons finished 20th in DVOA, but their individual play at many positions was outstanding. Five of their last eight regular season games ended with a negative defensive DVOA rating. They smothered the Rams in the playoffs. Even in losing to Philadelphia, their performance looked a lot more excusable after Nick Foles torched the Vikings and Patriots en route to a Super Bowl championship.
But many of the pieces of that unit have been ordinary or injured in 2018. Deion Jones and Keanu Neal have combined for 106 snaps. Starting safety Ricardo Allen joined them on IR after Week 3. More importantly against a team like the Bengals, they merely have an ordinary pass rush. They were 20th in pressure rate per Sports Info Solutions through Week 3, and they were 29th in adjusted sack rate. Against Andy Dalton and an offensive line that was a huge question mark coming into the season, the Falcons were able to get just three sacks and four quarterback hits in 44 dropbacks.
Atlanta's injuries in the middle of the field were exploitable as well. Before Tyler Eifert was hit with another devastating injury in the middle of the game, Dalton was 4-for-4 with a touchdown targeting him in zone coverage right up the middle. Fantasy football sharps have known about Atlanta's issues covering running backs for weeks. The Falcons have allowed 11.8 passes and 85.0 yards per game to running backs (both 31st in the NFL) in Jones' absence. The Bengals actually somewhat underperformed this in only throwing eight passes to running backs, but they completed six of them for 45 yards.
But that wasn't all the damage the running backs were able to do. Giovani Bernard -- a good back, but considered by most NFL teams to be a backup -- had a success rate on 67 percent of his carries. The Falcons were 32nd in run defense DVOA coming into this game. They were one of only nine teams allowing a positive DVOA to opposing running games. They were able to hold rookie Mark Walton to 9 yards on five carries. Otherwise, they allowed 90 yards on 18 carries to the rest of the Bengals rushers (including scrambles).
I don't want to tell you that the Falcons are finished at 1-3. They still have a lot of upper-level talent on defense. They can obviously score with anybody. But in the pinball machine that the NFL has become, their defense is one of those that has looked completely clueless so far. They don't have a single strength as a unit. Can't stop the run, can't rush the passer, can't bend-but-not-break. Without the upper-level talent that is all sitting on injured reserve and the shelf right now, the defense is getting exposed on every level.
That's how you become the first team to score 36 points in back-to-back losses since 1966. It's not just that the Falcons aren't good, it's that they've failed on every level at which a defense can fail through four games.
How the Game Swung
Per Edj Sports' Game Winning Chance metric, here are the biggest plays of a seesaw, back-and-forth game. It's pretty rare that we get a game for this column that had this much on the line this late. I turned away quite a few 10-plus GWC% swings that probably would've made the top five in other games. Scott Kacsmar should have a full record of the final drive in Clutch Encounters.
1) A.J. Green touchdown, second-and-10 with 12 seconds left -- GWC from 41.8% to 98.7% = 56.9% swing
2) Tyler Boyd fourth-down catch with 22 seconds left -- GWC from 19.3% to 44.6% = 25.3% swing
3) Tyler Boyd fourth-down catch with 1:21 left -- GWC from 20.3% to 42.8% = 22.5% swing
The pick by Dalton was a tipped reception that popped right up into Kazee's waiting hands.
By the (D)VOA
Opponent adjustments (added for the first time this week) actually think the Cincinnati offense underperformed the average offense in this game by only scoring (checks notes) 37 points.
Atlanta's single-game defensive DVOA of 18.2% is their second-best mark of the season. The Falcons punted just one time in the entire game, though they did turn it over on downs early at midfield.
The Reformation of the Cincinnati Offensive Line
In 2016, the Bengals remained a pretty good offense. They didn't have an immediate replacement for Marvin Jones or Mohamed Sanu, and Tyler Eifert got hurt. It was not the 2015 dream season, in which everything came together in terms of skill position and offensive line talent, but they finished 11th in offensive DVOA anyway.
The big scuttlebutt after the 2016 season was letting Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler walk in free agency. The Bengals had one of the best offensive lines of the mid-2010s, but threw that advantage away because they had spent first- and second-round picks on Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher in the 2016 draft. Ogbuehi's early experience was maddening at best, and Fisher had barely played. Meanwhile, Whitworth was old, and even though the team had money to spend on both of their linemen, they decided not to pay the price.
Let's briefly check in on how Whitworth is faring in his new home in Los Angeles...
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) September 29, 2018
Seems like 2016 might have been kind of avoidable if tackle age wasn't such a big deal for NFL front offices.
Dalton suffered the worst year of his career in 2017. His average intended air yards per pass in 2016 was 8.6. That dropped to 8.1 in 2017, and the offense had to be completely rescaled early in the season as Ken Zampese was fired and the team installed a quicker offense under Bill Lazor. Dalton's average intended air yards has actually dropped further in 2018, now sitting at 7.7. What has changed drastically is that the offensive line is no longer allowing Dalton to be a pincushion.
|Andy Dalton's Pressure, by the Numbers|
|* through Week 4|
The Lazor offense, to this point, has done an excellent job of keeping Dalton free from sacks. Left tackle Cordy Glenn, a one-time Bills franchise-tag left tackle, has provided stability to the left side of the line. Even though Russell Bodine replacement Billy Price has been hurt, and even though right tackle Bobby Hart is a notorious turnstile, the Bengals have created an offense that doesn't require great quarterback play to be good. Dalton has Green and a reloaded skill position corps between Tyler Boyd, John Ross, and Joe Mixon. The only thing keeping the Bengals down so far has been Dalton's predilection towards the interception: he has six in just four games.
In today's pinball NFL, you're either a team with an offense, or you aren't. By keeping Dalton from having to read late in to the down more often than not, and giving him some better pass protection and receivers, the Bengals have proved through four weeks that they have a real NFL offense again.
In the AFC, that alone is enough to make them a serious contender.