Any Given Sunday: Falcons Over Rams

Any Given Sunday: Falcons Over Rams

by Rivers McCown

One of the great things about football upsets is the multiple layers they provide. Because on one hand, there are real macro issues that this weekend's loss to Atlanta revealed for the Rams, ones that would have been exploited by most NFC playoff teams.

Or we could just look at the fact that this game had two fumbles, both by the Rams, both by Los Angeles special teams, both deep in Rams territory. The Falcons scored 10 points off of those two turnovers, and the Rams turned the ball over on downs in a spot where they easily could have kicked a field goal if the score had dictated that it made sense. Los Angeles' problems don't look quite so crippling in that light, do they?

The truth of the matter is that the NFC was a stacked conference in 2017. The Rams played high-quality football, but Jared Goff was not bigger than the circumstances. I say that knowing that Goff made some tremendous throws in this game. But on a down-to-down basis, the Falcons limited Todd Gurley and made the passing offense beat them vertically. Gurley, who finished the regular season second among all running backs in receiving DYAR, would catch four of 10 targets for just 10 yards. Outside of two long runs in the fourth quarter, Gurley contributed 54 yards on 12 carries. The Falcons stacked the box and dared the Rams to throw on them. Every time the Rams tried to run screens to Gurley, they looked like this:

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The Falcons completely shut down the left side of the field. The Rams were able to complete just five-of-17 targets to the left, for 37 yards. And time and time again, those incompletions were balls where Goff was late on the throw or just trying to check down in the face of massive coverage.

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Here you can see the Rams in trips on the right, then Kupp runnnig across the formation. The Rams got Kupp open on a similar concept earlier in the game, only to have the throw be a bit too low for an easy catch. This time, the Falcons read it the entire way, and just pounced on it.

Goff took a major step forward in 2017, one for which it is almost impossible to separate credit and blame between Jeff Fisher's disaster of an offense and Sean McVay's wunderkind designs. This is no damning indictment of Goff's future -- we're 17 games into him being good and he's still learning the quarterback position. As I said, he hit some huge throws in this game. From a scouting perspective, this is the sort of stuff that made him a No. 1 pick despite his time in a spread-focused Cal offense.

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But as it currently stands, he's still slightly robotic. He's still reliant on the scheme. He's making throws, but not creating throws. That, and some poor fumble luck, are why the Rams didn't find the defending NFC champions quite as easy as the teams they spanked during the regular season. As we noted a few weeks ago, the Rams had a relatively inconsistent pass offense this year. If McVay could scheme them into big plays, it happened. When it didn't, they were often more solid than good. And, in a playoff bracket this stacked, solid can get you beat.


Where The Game Turned

In the first quarter, Blake Countess had a Falcons punt hit off his foot that was eventually cleaned up by the Falcons, leading to a field goal. In the second, Pharoh Cooper was stripped by Damontae Kazee, setting up a touchdown. Starting off 13-0 is not the way to win a football game, and those two events combined to set the Falcons up for success. Per EdjSports' Game Winning Chance metric, the Countess muff gave the Falcons +13.9 percent GWC.

Another major turning point, to get back to Goff, was on Los Angeles' last drive of the first half. First-and-goal from the 7 with 19 seconds left, and the Rams had to settle for a field goal after two short passes, a spike, and a hold.

The last real gasp where Los Angeles had a chance to keep their WPA high was in the third quarter, after another huge catch by Robert Woods set the Rams up in Atlanta territory. First-and-10 from the Atlanta 47, and the Rams got 3 yards on a Gurley run. Two Goff incompletions, and they were punting in positive territory.

We'd be remiss if we didn't compliment Dan Quinn's decision to go for in on fourth-and-1 from the Los Angeles 21 at the start of the third quarter. It certainly worked out much better for the Falcons than Mike Smith's forays into fourth-and-short. GWC graded it out as a +1.6 percent move. The Falcons didn't quite punch it in, because Aaron Donald is a destroyer of worlds and the Rams defense is incredible. But it helped bleed a little more time off the clock and made the comeback just a little bit more improbable.

Finally, the biggest swing in the game per GWC came on Mohamed Sanu's screen pass that took the Falcons from second-and-13 to first-and-goal deep in Los Angeles territory. Their chances of winning the game jumped from 79.9 percent to 95.8 percent on that play.

By the VOA

DVOA Tot Off Def ST
ATL 36.0% 17.0% -4.0% 14.0%
LARM 22.0% 16.0% -4.0% 2.0%
VOA Tot Off Def ST
ATL 14.0% 13.0% 13.0% 14.0%
LARM 17.0% 19.0% 4.0% 2.0%

The Rams had the best DVOA of any team that fell this weekend. DVOA tells the tale of those two fumbles. These were two evenly matched teams, and one of them did not cost itself two possessions and a whole football field of yardage.


The Return of Splits Happen

Steve Sarkisian's first season in Atlanta has produced some sub-optimal strategy at times. If you have watched the Falcons at all this year beyond this game, where he somehow outsmarted Wade Phillips, you know that Sarkisian's offense has been an issue. It has been predictable, and it has been too quick to ignore Julio Jones. The pre-snap movements that helped Matt Ryan in Kyle Shanahan's system are gone. Even in this very game, it produced a lot of field goal attempts and had no real answer for Aaron Donald.

However, the Falcons offense, on a seasonal level, has been fine. They finished ninth in DVOA, and were fairly close to everyone below fourth. It was the Atlanta defense, long proclaimed as a unit that would be great following their Super Bowl run, that was somehow the bigger disappointment.

And yet, to take a line from a video game, time flows like a river, and history repeats...

Atlanta Average Game Defensive DVOA, 2016-2017, Weeks 1-9 vs. Weeks 10-17


Wk 1-9 Wk 10-17 Total Wk 1-9 Wk 10-17 Total
Pass D DVOA 19.9% 3.5% 10.7% 27.4% 2.3% 13.3%
Run D DVOA -7.2% 7.7% 1.7% 0.0% -9.9% -4.2%
D DVOA 10.0% 5.5% 7.3% 12.9% -3.5% 5.6%

Atlanta's defense has taken a major step forward, especially against the pass. Marquand Manuel, as a first-year/first-time defensive coordinator, would lend more credence to the idea that this could be a lasting change. It often takes a little extra time to understand how to combat things.

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In fact, Atlanta's improvement has been even bigger on defense than it was last year. On a seasonal basis, as long as Atlanta plays like this on defense, they have a top-10 unit on both sides of the ball. They have a quarterback that makes them a tough out. They're about to play a team that is starting Nick Foles. It's never enviable to be the No. 6 seed, but this sets up about as well as it possibly could have for them.

Or, as it was at the beginning of this year, it could just be another case of Splits Happen. Still, it's Atlanta's defensive improvement supplementing their offense that helped them knock over the Rams on the road. They're the unit that keeps this team in balance, and they played sticky coverage on Los Angeles' outside receivers.

Can they do it for three more rounds?


4 comments, Last at 11 Jan 2018, 7:14am