Any Given Sunday: Bears Over Falcons

Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan and Chicago Bears QB Nick Foles
Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan and Chicago Bears QB Nick Foles
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Friends, I feel bad for fans of the Atlanta Falcons and the offense of the Atlanta Falcons. They are staples of this column, a talented quarterback and a few talented receivers stuck trying to caretake for a coaching staff that lives a consequence-free life of disappointment. Eventually the hot-seat articles start getting published and Dan Quinn reverse-engineers just enough out of his defense to deceive a gullible ownership group into thinking that next year, when (players are healthy or a new defensive mastermind is calling the plays), things are going to change around here

How that has unfolded as a whole on defense looks like this:

Atlanta Falcons Defense Through the Years
Year Def
Rk Pass Def
Rk Run Def
2020 4.5% 20 14.7% 17 -13.4% 17
2019 1.4% 17 12.4% 21 -14.0% 13
2018 12.5% 30 23.4% 30 -3.3% 26
2017 2.3% 17 13.7% 19 -14.3% 11
2016 3.6% 18 7.0% 16 -2.2% 27

It's almost eerie how consistent things have been here, 2018 exempted as the year when the unit was besieged by more injuries than normal. This defense finds a way to be below average every season despite having Deion Jones, Grady Jarrett, and Dante Fowler. This unit has first-rounders from 2020, 2017, and 2016 in A.J. Terrell, Takkarist McKinley, and Keanu Neal. (Terrell did not play Sunday after a positive COVID-19 test.)

In this particular game, there were three plays I want to focus on to talk about how the Falcons are bad and also how Mercedes-Benz Stadium was probably built over the wrong ancestor's bones so that the defense was cursed

The Falcons allowed Mitch Trubisky to scramble 45 yards for a first down by having their blitzing safety (22, Neal) and stunting defensive tackle (97, Jarrett) hit the same gap at the same time, creating a pile-up. The admirable quit of 33 (Blidi Wreh-Wilson) to see the run coming and simply just keep following his receiver would be startling if you had never watched an Atlanta Falcons game before

Here's one where they felt cursed:

Atlanta A) pressures the quarterback as Grady Jarrett gets past the center and forces an off-balance throw; B) has three defenders in the area around Jimmy Graham, all in front of the ball, and C) forces two fumbles on this play. They gave up 30 yards on the play on third-and-8. Every level of that defense worked. Except, you know, the results. Falcons defensive plays should come with Emil Cioran quotes attached to them. In fact, let's add one:

This play came with a 26-16 lead and 4:21 to play. Maybe you think it would work out better if Isaiah Oliver (26) -- don't pay attention to how I misspelled it because I care as much as Oliver did on this play -- just tried to tackle Allen Robinson down. You might be right. But the Falcons have long since moved beyond the need to play by the traditional NFL rules.

The Bears had two other touchdowns taken off the board in this game -- one the referees ruled an interception when Robinson and Darqueze Dennard both seemed to come down with the ball at the same time, the other a fourth-down touchdown strike to Miller that was overturned on replay. Atlanta's defense somehow still found a way.

Where the Game Swung

Chart 1


Where the Game Swung
Description Time CHI GWC
Tashaun Gipson INT 1:14 Q4 51.6% 99.0% +47.4%
Anthony Miller TD catch 2:00 Q4 39.9% 61.8% +21.9%
Allen Robinson TD catch 4:29 Q4 6.5% 24.5% +18.0%
ATL 3-and-out, all passes 4:21 Q4 24.5% 38.6% +14.1%
63-yard bomb to Calvin Ridley 10:42 Q1 32.9% 23.1% -9.8%
Brian Hill 35-yard TD run 4:48 Q2 18.1% 9.9% -8.2%

I need to spotlight one section of this that isn't just a single-play GWC% swing, and that's the part where the Falcons have the ball with 5:32 left in the game and call a play-action pass and a screen on back-to-back plays. They follow up on the next drive by calling three straight pass plays, all of which are incomplete. The Bears had all three timeouts left, yes, but by giving them the chance to have those timeouts and/or misuse them, the Falcons did an excellent job of making sure that the Bears had pretty much all the time in the world to come back. Here's what Dan Quinn had to say about that:

The nonchalant play-off of the question -- like trusting a good NFL quarterback who was sacked twice and hit eight times in 38 dropbacks is beyond reproach -- was magnificent. Quinn dismissed it with all the chutzpah of your grandfather defending the food at Olive Garden.

By the VOA


CHI -19.7% -14.2% -2.0% -7.5%
ATL -13.9% -19.7% -16.4% -10.5%

FO head honcho Aaron Schatz passed along a couple of time splits he found interesting:

Atlanta offensive VOA, Q1-3: 16.1%
Atlanta offensive VOA, Q4: -126.2%

Chicago offense VOA, Trubisky: -32.6%
Chicago offense VOA, Foles -6.1%.

Chicago's defense was a bigger factor in the comeback than their offense. I have already seen multiple mentions of Trubisky being used like Taysom Hill because of this game. This is what you've done, Falcons.

What Does 3-0 Mean for the Chicago Bears?

Before the season, we projected the Chicago Bears to finish with a -3.1% DVOA, a -7.1% offensive DVOA, and a -3.6% defensive DVOA. Through three games, despite the 3-0 record, DVOA sees that they have ... a -3.2% DVOA, with a worse offense than expected and a better defense than expected. Of course, our mean projection called for them to get 7.6 wins and they're almost halfway there already. They boosted their playoff odds to 63.9%.

Almost nothing about this team actually seems changed from what we thought about them going into the season though. Neither Trubisky nor Foles has played well -- Trubisky's bones in Week 1 were made against one of the worst defenses in the NFL ever since Matt Patricia took over. Foles finished with fine traditional numbers, but those belied how poorly he looked on a majority of his throws. At any rate, it was merely a matter of when for Foles taking over. One major issue they continue to have is that the run offense looks ghastly against real opponents. They're at -17.8% run offense DVOA, 19th in the league. David Montgomery has to cut five times behind the line of scrimmage to avoid losing yards on the Chicago run plays that don't involve the quarterback scrambling through the middle of the field. (Remember, scrambles count as passing plays in DVOA now.)

The return of Akiem Hicks from injury and the additions of Robert Quinn and Jalyon Johnson, on the other hand, are threatening to bring this defense back to an elite unit. Johnson has plugged right in to Prince Amukamara's role on the outside and been good out the gate, while Quinn -- laughable contract and all -- provides more edge threat than the Bears had with Leonard Floyd

This feels like a unit that is taking a step back towards what they were in 2018, when they finished No. 1 in defensive DVOA by over 10.0% points. They probably won't be that good again -- then-coordinator Vic Fangio is now Broncos head coach, while current coordinator Chuck Pagano isn't exactly showing out a lot of schematic improvements from what he had before he was Colts head coach. But when you combine a good defense with a reasonable offense, you get a potential playoff team

It's very easy as an outside analyst to disparage a team like this because, well, they have gotten some luck in close games! They're not fun to watch play offense!

But they also have those three wins banked, and those aren't going to get legislated away no matter how bad Foles and Trubisky look. It's a little too early to go declaring a team a playoff favorite in Week 3, but you may want to sit down with your kids and prepare them for the possibility of playoff Nick Foles anchored behind a good defense and what that means for them.


14 comments, Last at 01 Oct 2020, 12:06pm

1 "Please enjoy Akiem Hicks…

"Please enjoy Akiem Hicks sacking Matt Ryan through Chris Lindstrom's material existence."

Aww, I was hoping for a repeat of that time Jared Allen sacked Eli with a lineman between them.

2 Lindstrom's block

I'd love Ben Muth to weigh in here, but even though it looks like Hicks starts to beat the RG off the snap, it seems like the RG recovers and keeps him reasonably blocked. Not having watched the game, I half expected to see Hicks just push a lineman back into Ryan's lap and pancake them both or something like that.

3 Pagano Employed?

I guess all members of the NFL Coaches Club have lifetime tenure and you can only get expelled for something truly egregious - showing your weiner to a bunch of Girl Scouts, etc. 

4 Wade Phillips was a mediocre…

In reply to by RobotBoy

Wade Phillips was a mediocre HC and an excellent DC. Dick LeBeau was a terrible HC and an excellent DC. Rod Marinelli was a terrible HC and a mediocre DC.

Not everyone is Matt Patricia, and incompetent at all aspects of being an adult.

5 Yeah, I guess I didn't…

Yeah, I guess I didn't follow Pagano as a head coach, and I don't know what his overall body of work as a DC looks like, but the consensus when he joined the Bears seemed to be that he was at least a cromulent DC. People were disappointed to lose Fangio as DC, but I don't recall hearing much if anything specifically negative about Pagano.

6 It's what I get for…

It's what I get for consuming sports talk radio, I guess, but I am amazed by the number of people who think Foles is going to unlock a bunch of hidden potential in Matt Nagy's offense and lead the Bears to greatness. I couldn't watch the Lions game, but after watching the Giants and Falcons games, I don't think Trubisky was egregiously bad in those games and I don't think Foles looked noticeably better. I think moving on from Trubisky is totally defensible in itself, because "not egregiously bad" seems to be his ceiling in year 4, but the only possible reason to think Foles is the answer is to think that his 2013 season and Eagles playoff run better represent the QB he truly is than the 80%+ of his career that he's been awful. And when you consider that Pace traded for Foles in an offseason where Cam Newton was available on a prove-it deal...

I don't get to watch every game, but I can't recall one moment where David Montgomery has made me think that he's remotely special. He's a 3rd round pick, of course, but Pace did trade up to acquire him. For years the defense of Pace has been that he finds gems in the mid/late rounds, even if his 1st and 2nd round picks almost always fail, but as time goes by I find it hard to say he's had one indisputable success in those middle/last rounds besides Eddie Jackson. When Tarik Cohen tore his ACL I felt alternately bad, good, and indifferent: bad for him that he has to deal with that injury, good for him that he signed a contract extension a week before, and indifferent for what he means to the Bears because he hasn't done much of note since his rookie season.

7 And when you consider that…

And when you consider that Pace traded for Foles in an offseason where Cam Newton was available on a prove-it deal...

Fallacy of hindsight. There was little reason to think Cam wasn't toast, and he's an unknown quantity as a back-up, which is what Chicago was hiring.

10 If Pace was looking for a…

If Pace was looking for a backup rather than an upgrade to Trubisky, and he thought that he was paying a reasonable price in $21M fully guaranteed + a 4th round pick for a backup, that alone should get him fired.

12 agreed

I think when you bring in the Super Bowl MVP from 2 years prior and your starter is an underwhelming, over-drafted guy who has yet to prove anything, at a minimum the expectation is that they will compete for the job.  

As for Cam, when 31 organizations say "Nobody could have known" and Belichick grins, maybe we have to rethink what passes for conventional wisdom.  

(To be fair, I'd say the WTFs whiffed even worse than Da Bears, given that Rivera should have known Cam's situation better than anybody.  But of course Cam was involved in lengthy discussions with BB and it's very doubtful he'd have wanted to go to DC, even with Rivera involved, not when an opportunity with the Pats was available.) 

9 Offensive Line Improvement

The run game looked better than 2019 in the first two weeks but less so against Atlanta. Run blocking AGL is 7th, up from 29th last year. Pass blocking up to 14th from 21st. The Bears are running too much on first down - likely a reflection of Nagy’s comfort with Mitch throwing. 

I think Foles makes the offense a bit more efficient. Whether that means a 25th ranked offense or 15th is the question. The latter with a top 5 defense is interesting. The former is meh.  

11 Foles.

I love the direction the Bears are going with Foles.  You basically bank those two early wins under Trubisky as golden eggs and hope Foles can take you to the playoffs.

He's proven to be a better leader and is a SB winning QB.  Rumor is that Philly was trying to get Foles back before the Bears made the QB switch.

So, going forward, this becomes a matchup of the Bears D vs. Aaron Rogers for the division.  Chicago fans actually have hope now.



13 upset?

Let's hope this is the last appearance by the Dirty Birds in this column.  We're past the point when anybody can be surprised should they lose any game, at any time, for any reason.

I should think Quinn is in serious jeopardy here.  A lot of organizations would fire him in the middle of the season based on this start. 

14 RickRoll'd!

In reply to by RickD

You think Quinn is in serious jeopardy?

I would highly leverage my bet that he's getting fired, whether it's after they go 0-4 or in the off-season.  Arthur Blank might keep him on to finish the year regardless of how bad they tank.  Then again, the could be gone after they lose in Green Bay.