The Atlanta Falcons have had a disaster of a season. There's not an easy way to spin it as a positive. They have Matt Ryan and Julio Jones -- and can even find 400 passing yards from Matt Schaub on the bench -- but they simply haven't been able to play defense or run the ball all year. Until they played the Saints, that is.
The Falcons have fewer rushing attempts than any NFL team, and for good reason. They're averaging 3.8 yards per attempt. Their DVOA on rushing attempts coming into Week 10 was -20.1%, 24th in the NFL. So, of course, paired against a Saints defense that had the sixth-rated rush defense (-21.0% coming into the week), it was sort of a fait accompli that the Falcons wouldn't be able to run the ball.
Instead, Atlanta ran the ball 34 times, gaining 143 yards and making a mockery of those statistics. They had four separate rushing plays that went for more than 9 yards on the first drive alone.
It was a rough first drive for New Orleans' run defense. Awful lot of wide open spaces. pic.twitter.com/Ygx6Qj5Apn
— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) November 12, 2019
On the first play, an end around to Calvin Ridley, Mario Edwards Jr. got caught reading the initial flow of the run and let Ridley get to the edge easily. The runner was untouched until he got to safety Marcus Williams. On the second play, James Carpenter just bulldozed Shy Tuttle (99) off the line of scrimmage, creating an enormous hole, and Devonta Freeman went untouched until an arm tackle by a linebacker. The third play has Jamon Brown pushing Sheldon Rankins well off the line of scrimmage.
The last play involves Matt Ryan aligning as a fullback. I, uh ... what? Well, that went for a lot of yards despite good penetration because Kenjon Barner was quick to the edge.
Atlanta's major run game problem has been a lot of dancing this season -- per NFL Next Gen Stats' rushing efficiency statistic, only Kalen Ballage has brought more horizontal yardage than Devonta Freeman has this year. I don't know if that means Freeman is broken long-term, but it does probably mean that any injury that keeps Freeman out won't be a humongous deal. Keep in mind that the average rank of Dirk Koetter's offenses in rushing yards per attempt since 2013 has been 22.5. I don't think there's a lot supporting the Falcons becoming a dominant rushing team -- I'll leave Brian Hill discussion for Scott Spratt's Win The Wire column -- and most of these big gains are simple misdirection plays or were otherwise reliant on the offensive line. Is Koetter going to integrate players like Ridley and Barner long-term? I have my doubts.
For the Saints, David Onyemata missed their worst rushing yardage game of the season against Houston, and he missed three of the four plays I put up in that video. Maybe the lesson is just that he's pretty good and the Saints shouldn't want him off the field under any circumstances.
Where the Game Swung
Taking a look at EdjSports' Game-Winning Chance metric (GWC), we can see just about where this game turned into sour milk for the New Orleans Saints:
The biggest bits, in chronological order:
- Matt Ryan's 54-yard pass to Julio Jones at the end of the second quarter took the Falcons from deep in their own territory to the New Orleans' red zone, and gained 9.3% GWC. The Falcons would quickly squander the opportunity to actually score a touchdown, but Jones' catch still flipped the field.
- In the Atlanta red zone, the Saints looked to be in good position to get a game-tying touchdown, but on second-and-goal from the 10, Drew Brees was sacked for a loss of 6 yards, essentially forcing a field-goal attempt after third-and-goal from the 16. That sack gained the Falcons 10.0% GWC.
- Finally, Ryan's touchdown pass to Brian Hill boosted Atlanta's GWC by 11.4%.
You'll notice that despite winning for much of the game, Atlanta's chances of winning didn't become "real" until that 20-9 lead. That has a lot to do with how the GWC system valued the Saints and believed they were the better team.
By the (D)VOA
Well, this here is a good old-fashioned Game VOA Is Scratching Its Head About:
New Orleans won the game in VOA's eyes -- they had more yards per play (4.9 to 4.5), won the turnover battle (one to zero), and generally outperformed the Falcons on a per-play basis until they hit the red zone. VOA also gives them credit for their end-of-game drive that finished at the 1-yard line even though, obviously, at that point it didn't matter.
On 11 plays inside the Atlanta red zone, the Saints averaged 1.1 yards with a -162.0% DVOA.
The Most Offensive Line Play is Letting the Falcons Get Six Sacks
Coming into this week, the Falcons only had seven sacks and were 27th in pressure rate (subscription required). It's not like any of the non-Grady Jarrett Falcons were having a great season. Vic Beasley was available for a place-kicking tee at the trade deadline and nobody wanted him.
Against the Saints this week, they sacked Drew Brees six times. So, nearly half of their sacks on the season came in this game. Why?
Only one of the sacks was a true "easy" sack for the defense -- Jarrett defeated Andrus Peat up the middle with his hands and came free to get Brees. Another was a pure coverage sack, where a three-man rush eventually won as nobody was open. Another came when Adrian Clayborn was thrown right into Peat by Terron Armstead, only for Peat to not pick up Clayborn at all (because he was engaged with another rusher) and let Clayborn come free at the quarterback.
Let's look at the other three, since they were much more impactful (two red-zone sacks and a fourth-down sack):
Drew Brees' two red zone sacks and his fourth-down sack. pic.twitter.com/V5MNM9kcOg
— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) November 12, 2019
- On the first sack, it becomes clear that the plan was to get Alvin Kamara in space, and the play design worked. There was "play-action" and this was a max protect. Because Kamara slips out of his break, Brees doesn't throw the ball. At that point, the fact that Zach Line's cut block did not work becomes much more important, and before Brees could get to a second option he was sacked. Tough result of a good play call.
- The second sack has Jarrett on Peat again to get some push, but again it's max protect and play-action, a very slow play call. And when Brees gets to his drop and wants to target Krishawn Hogan over the middle, he notices that Foyesade Oluokun (54) has taken steps back from the initial play-action, and could get a hand on the ball. As Brees resets to try to get outside to his left, he's suddenly got both Jarrett and Beasley in his face.
- The design of the third play, again, works. It gets Michael Thomas wide open over the middle of the field. But on the stunt, Erik McCoy (78) and Larry Warford (67) let both men through, and Beasley through essentially unblocked. I think you could argue that Brees could have anticipated this enough to make the throw earlier, but perhaps Deion Jones' eyes in coverage dissuaded Brees from thinking that the toss would be fully open. By the time it is fully open, Beasley is in Brees' lap.
The Saints offensive line has been playing pretty well this year, and I think you can argue that most of them played pretty well in this game. (I do think Jarrett cleaned Peat's clock.) But when you send fewer receivers in the routes and run play-action, you're really betting that those receivers win the early reads, and they simply didn't do that on the first two sacks. The third one is a little more open for interpretation to me.
Atlanta's pass defense wasn't all that great, as it has not been for most of the season. What they did do was actually create some negative plays for once. Given the amplitude of where those plays tended to occur, it probably was the key factor in the win.