San Francisco's offense had played four games of negative-DVOA ball before last week's loss to Atlanta: against Tampa Bay in Week 1, the Rams in Week 6, Washington in Week 7, and Seattle in Week 10. One of those games occurred in a monsoon. The other three were Jimmy Garoppolo's worst games of the year, with the 49ers failing to get more than 232 total passing yards in any of them while they turned the ball over a combined seven times. San Francisco's offense having a bad game is noteworthy, but not particularly interesting at this point. We know that Jimmy Garoppolo's receiving crew has a dropped-pass fetish. We know that Mike Person isn't an ideal starting guard to throw out against Grady Jarrett.
The big story of the loss to the Falcons was, in spite of the low point total, the 49ers defense secretly continuing to crumble. This wasn't entirely unexpected because San Francisco took a major rash of injuries against the Saints last week and the attrition has continued to take a toll on them. Richard Sherman didn't play. Dee Ford didn't play. K'Waun Williams didn't play. Jaquiski Tartt didn't play. D.J. Jones was IR'ed. Kwon Alexander was lost for the season with a torn pec last month. The 49ers have seen their pressure rate decline with a fearsome front four getting chipped more and drawing more quick passes, and they simply haven't been able to cover as well as they did the first seven weeks of the season.
|San Francisco since K'Won Alexander's injury|
|Weeks||Defensive DVOA||Pass Defense DVOA||Pressures|
On Sunday, this team had no chance of stopping Julio Jones. With Calvin Ridley out, the Falcons took a bold stance not entirely unlike Fumble Dimension: they called the play where they threw the ball to their best player 20 times. All other Atlanta receivers combined for just 19 targets. Jones had zero catches of more than 28 yards, but he steadily marched the Falcons up the field on almost every drive.
Not every quarterback and receiver are talented enough to do this to the 49ers, but Matt Ryan and Jones are.
It's not entirely shocking that the 49ers defense has lost some steam as the season has worn on -- teams are more sure of what to expect, and know more about the kind of game plan they need to avoid a pass rush that brutalized things early in the year. But the coverage decline is something that matters a lot, something that was evident in each of the last two games they played, and something that pass rush alone can't overcome.
Richard Sherman expects to return in Week 16, but Dee Ford probably won't return until the playoffs. The 49ers are probably going to have to lean more on their offense in the postseason, both to grind clock to buffer this defense and to produce more than it has in its few duds this year.
Where the Game Swung
That's a stark fall! We covered a lot of this in Tipping Points yesterday. But let's list out the most important parts of the comeback via Business Daddy EdjSports' GWC (Game-Winning Chance) metric:
- Atlanta recovered a Matt Breida fumble right at the end of the third quarter, keeping San Francisco from going further in a possession that had already reached the Atlanta 38. That gained 10.8% GWC.
- Kenjon Barner muffed a punt that San Francisco recovered deep in Atlanta territory in the fourth quarter, which cost Atlanta 16.0% GWC. They would bottom out a little later at 3.6% GWC for the game.
- A 32-yard defensive pass interference penalty drawn by Julio Jones set up the Falcons at the 1, a play that was worth 10.0% GWC.
- San Francisco opted for a field goal with 1:52 left even though the Falcons had just one timeout and the game would have been over if the 49ers could convert on fourth-and-1. They hit the field goal to go up five, but the decision to kick cost San Francisco -11.2% GWC.
- Atlanta got the ball back on their 30, with an 18.3% GWC. One long drive and three major Julio Jones catches later, the 49ers had lost the game.
By the (D)VOA
The 49ers actually gained more yards per play than the Falcons did. Atlanta's offensive DVOA in the first half was a strong 35.2%, but they punted twice at midfield -- once on fourth-and-4 from their own 41 -- and kneeled out the half.
Who Are the 2020 Atlanta Falcons?
Let's move past this season's Atlanta Falcons. This season is over for them, and they are in an extremely unique position as a team that went all-in for this year only to find that they didn't have enough. The Falcons are one of two teams projected by Over The Cap to be ... well, Over The Cap as next season starts. Matt Ryan's extension kicks in and takes him into $30 million-a-year cap figure territory, and the Falcons have to maneuver around that.
The easiest players to move on from will probably be Desmond Trufant, who had a disappointing early season and only played nine games, and Alex Mack, now 34 and another player who struggled early before picking it up late. There's probably a way for them to get to around $20 million in cap room depending on who they cut bait on. Devonta Freeman, Allen Bailey, and Ty Sambrailo are other players who are probably going to be found wanting from a value perspective. The only free agent they have that will probably find a major deal is Austin Hooper -- they could probably franchise tag him with enough cuts, but that would end any flexibility they'd have in the offseason.
It's hard to believe that Ryan and Jones have been on the same team for as long as they have. They were key cogs on the team that hosted the NFC Championship Game to get to Super Bowl XLVII, a team that had names such as Michael Turner playing key roles on it, if you want to feel old. And because both got new deals relatively recently, the Falcons really have no choice but to keep running them as a core until they run out of gas. Ryan will be 35 in 2020, Jones 31. Neither contract is easy to get out of until 2022.
Lindstrom with another good pull to lead Freeman for 8-9 pic.twitter.com/exYgBvtBDN
— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 15, 2019
Where can Atlanta improve next season that they couldn't this year? First-round guard Chris Lindstrom could be playing and playing well. The guard broke his foot early in the season and only has 145 snaps this year. Right tackle Kaleb McGary has had a dreadful rookie year, but a full NFL offseason may help him develop the technique he needs to pair with his plus-body and tools. That will help settle an offensive line that has mostly been in disarray around stalwart tackle Jake Matthews. The Falcons have one of the eight worst pressure rates in the NFL this year per Sports Info Solutions (subscription required). That can't be the case in 2020 with the investments they made at those positions.
A lot of the answer to this question depends on the answer to the question: "Is Dan Quinn allowed on the premises?"
Quinn's defense was horrific this year, but they turned it around after the bye week when Quinn started delegating control, as we've discussed in previous AGSes because every Falcons win has been an upset. (OK, not really, but it feels like it.)
|Atlanta's Defense Before and After the Bye|
|Weeks||Defensive DVOA||Pass Defense DVOA|
|Weeks 1-8||15.8% (30)||50.4% (31)|
|Weeks 10-15||-7.9% (12)||-11.0% (11)|
Can you squint your eyes and see the defense that Quinn has created since the bye, pairing with Ryan/Jones/Ridley/Hooper on offense, to be an NFC contender in 2020, right after every sportswriter is out on them? Probably. Does that mean the Falcons should keep Quinn? Probably not. Under Quinn, the Falcons have been maestros of the small-sample defensive improvement. It never lasts.
But between Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, some solid defensive backs and good draft capital -- thanks Mohamed Sanu! -- the Falcons can be a 2020 contender. They've just got to get the right vision and execute it for 16 games instead of six.
(And please, please fire Dan Quinn.)