The Atlanta Falcons are one of three teams sharing the bottom spot in the NFC standings through 14 weeks of the 2020 season, but there's something a little different between them and the Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers. While all three teams are 4-9, the Falcons have actually outscored their opponents this year by six points while Dallas has a -102 points differential and Carolina is at -25.
In fact, Atlanta's scoring differential is better than 17 other teams in the NFL, including the 9-4 Cleveland Browns. What that means: The Falcons are a dangerous opponent and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will treat them as such.
Though Atlanta has been officially eliminated from the 2020 playoff race, they have won four of eight since Raheem Morris took over as interim head coach. The Falcons fired Head Coach Dan Quinn after an 0-5 start and the team won its first game with Morris at the helm, 40-23 over the Minnesota Vikings, who are squarely in playoff contention. Atlanta's second-half ledger also includes a 43-6 thrashing of the Las Vegas Raiders and a tough 21-16 loss to the 10-3 New Orleans Saints just two weeks ago.
The Falcons made some significant personnel changes heading into the 2020 season after finishing 7-9 for the second straight year in 2019. Gone are running back Devonta Freeman, tight end Austin Hooper, cornerback Desmond Trufant and defensive end Vic Beasley; in as replacements are Todd Gurley, Hayden Hurst, rookie A.J. Terrell and Dante Fowler. What hasn't changed is the core of quarterback Matt Ryan and wideouts Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, and unsurprisingly the Falcons remain among the NFL's best passing teams. Atlanta's 268.9 passing yards per game rank sixth in the league.
That said, it hasn't been exactly the typical year for potential Hall of Famers Ryan and Jones. Ryan's 89.3 passer rating would be his lowest since 2015, one year before he won NFL MVP honors, and his 63.7% completion rate would be his lowest since 2011. Jones, meanwhile, has been limited to nine games by injuries and he missed last week's contest against the Chargers due to a hamstring strain. He remains a dynamic weapon when on the field, averaging 15.1 yards per catch and 85.7 yards per game. Ridley, who started to look like a star in the making last season, has validated that perception with his best season yet; he's eighth in the league with 1,029 receiving yards and has scored eight touchdowns.
Atlanta's offensive line consists of three former first-round picks by the Falcons (LT Jake Matthews, RG Chris Lindstrom and RT Kaleb McGary), one former first-round pick by Seattle (James Carpenter) and high-profile 2016 free agent acquisition Alex Mack at center. However, those investments have not produced a dominant front, as the Falcons rank 20th in sacks allowed per pass play (33 total sacks) and 25th in rushing yards per game. Things have been worse of late, as Ryan has been sacked 14 times in the last four games, though eight of those came against the Saints' hyper-aggressive pass rush. Gurley leads the team with 645 yards on the ground and has scored nine times but is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry.
The Falcons' defense is struggling for the third season in a row, ranking 28th in yards allowed per game, though only 16th in points allowed. That often indicates a strong showing in the red zone, but Atlanta's defense actually ranks fourth from the bottom in that category, allowing touchdowns 68.2% of the time. Opponents have attacked Atlanta more through the air, averaging 281.8 yards per game as opposed to 108.8 on the ground. What has helped the Falcons suppress scoring is a +3 turnover ratio; they are the only team in the top 14 in that category with a losing record.
Deion Jones, one of the fastest linebackers in the NFL, is at the center of that defense and he has filled up his stat line with impact plays, including a 67-yard pick-six against Las Vegas. His former running mate, De'Vondre Campbell, is now in Arizona but third-year man Foyesade Oluokun, a former sixth-round pick, has stepped up well to replace Campbell, leading the team with 97 tackles and adding three sacks.
Atlanta is just 23rd in the league in sacks-per-pass-play on defense and have had to bring extra rushers from the back seven to get much of that pressure. Of the team's 23 sacks, nine have come from off-ball linebackers and defensive backs. Fowler, the former Jaguar and Ram, has added just two sacks and former Falcons first-rounder Takk McKinley was released in October after recording just one QB takedown. Grady Jarrett remains one of the NFL's most active and disruptive defensive tackles and has 17 QB hits and six tackles for loss to go with his 3.0 sacks.
After many years of the two Matts – Bosher and Bryant – handling their kicking duties, the Falcons have a new duo in rookie punter Sterling Hofrichter and placekicker Younghoe Koo. Koo, who actually took over the job midway through last year, has quickly turned into a star, making 33 of his 34 field goal tries – including all seven tries from 50 yards and beyond – and leading the NFL with 124 points scored.
The Falcons have the firepower to hang with any opposing offense and several stars in the middle of their defense capable of making game-changing plays. Here are some specific challenges and opportunities the Buccaneers will face when they take on Minnesota on Sunday afternoon:
If Julio Jones can return from his hamstring injury to play this weekend, he will have a chance to add to his incredible career numbers against Tampa Bay. Jones has averaged 115.1 receiving yards per game against the Buccaneers and his 11 touchdown catches in 16 career games in the series is nearly double his next highest total against any team. Update: Jones was ruled OUT for Week 15's game. Grady Jarrett has only logged one half of a sack in the Falcons' last 10 games but is still a quick penetrator and instinctive player who can blow up running and passing plays alike. In addition to those players, here are four Falcons who could make things difficult for the Buccaneers on Sunday:
1. WR Calvin Ridley. The Falcons took the former Alabama star in the first round in 2018 to pair with Jones and hit a home run. While he is indeed an excellent complement to his superstar teammate, Ridley has emerged as a number-one receiver in his own right, which has been critical for the Falcons with Jones missing some time. After recording 821 yards as a rookie and 866 last year, along with 17 total touchdowns, Ridley is on pace for nearly 1,400 yards this year and already has eight more touchdowns. The 6-1, 190-pound Ridley is speedy and a true downfield threat; as of midseason this year he had nine more downfield targets (10+ yards in the air) than any other player in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and produced the most catches and yards on those plays. Ridley gets a lot of off-coverage due to his take-the-top-off speed but is also a very good route-runner and the Falcons like to look his way on play-action throws. Ridley is good at getting depth on his routes and winning contested catches, and he gets most of his yards at the point of the catch rather than afterwards. His average of 12.8 yards at the point of the catch is the highest in the NFL.
2. LB Deion Jones. The Falcons' defense is simply better when Jones is on the field, especially against the run. Since the former LSU star entered the league as a second-round pick in 2016, Atlanta has surrendered 4.3 yards per carry with Jones in the mix and 4.8 per carry when he's on the sideline. He's even better in pass coverage, though. Jones has two interceptions this season to give him 11 in his five years in the NFL; that's the most picks by a linebacker in that span and nobody else even had 10. Jones has also broken up 38 passes, second to Minnesota's Eric Kendricks (40) in that span. His six passes defensed this year are tied for the Falcons' lead. Jones is excellent in the sort of down-the-middle coverage responsibilities a linebacker needs in the Cover Two but he also makes an impact on passes that are caught underneath. He reads plays and closes ground very suddenly, making sure that those short throws stay short gains. By the way, Jones also leads the Falcons with 3.5 sacks and is tied with the team lead with eight quarterback hits, so the Buccaneers will need to be aware of the possibility of him rushing the passer. Jones is second on the team to Oluokun in total tackles but his 57 stops on running plays are a team high. Basically, Jones does it all.
3. QB Matt Ryan. While Ryan's passer rating is down a bit this year, largely due to an underwhelming 19-11 TD-INT ratio, he still routinely puts up the type of game that made him the MVP in 2016. For instance, he torched the Vikings' defense in Week six for 371 yards and four touchdowns on 30-of-40 passing. He also had a four-touchdown outing against Dallas in Week Two. Moreover, Ryan has a long history of success against the Buccaneers. He's 16-8 all-time in his starts against Tampa Bay and has thrown 36 touchdown passes in those 24 games. Ryan is closing in on his 10th straight 4,000-yard passing season. Though he doesn't run much he can definitely slide to his left or right and still deliver on-target strikes. Ryan was sacked an NFL-high 48 times last year and has been dropped 33 more times this year, but he has also done some very good work under pressure. According to Next Gen Stats, from the start of 2018 through this season's midway point, Ryan had a 58.1% completion rate and an average of 7.8 yards per pass attempt when he was being pressure, both of which ranked third in the NFL in that span. The veteran passer is coming off a rough game in which he was picked off three times in a narrow loss to the Chargers, but the Buccaneers have seen enough of the prolific passer to know he can be a difference-maker in a good way on any Sunday.
4. S Keanu Neal. The Falcons' defense was without Neal for all but four games over the 2018-19 seasons but the team is thrilled to have him back this year after he emerged as a Pro Bowl defender in 2017, his second season. The former first-round pick out of Florida is a menacing thumper who is a key part of Atlanta's run defense. According to Next Gen Stas, the Falcons give up 3.7 yards per carry when Neal is on the field and 4.8 yards per carry when he isn't. The 6-1, 216-pound safety is third on the team with 79 tackles and 30 of those have come on running plays. He has also made a number of plays behind the line of scrimmage, with a sack, three quarterback hits and eight tackles for loss. While the Falcons like to play Neal in the box to take advantage of his hard hits and his ability to rush the passer, he has also had his best season in terms of coverage in 2020. Neal's versatility and coverage skills make him an important part of the Falcons' efforts to match up against changing offensive personnel. But most importantly, Neal is one of the most feared hitters in the game and Buccaneer pass-catchers will want to know where he is when going across the middle.
As noted above, the Falcons' passing attack is capable of putting up big numbers, particularly when Ryan has both Ridley and Jones to target. Third receiver Russell Gage, tight end Hayden Hurst and running backs Todd Gurley and Brian Hill give Ryan a lot of options. The Falcons move the chains, with the 11th-most first downs in the league, and their kicker almost never misses, even from deep. Atlanta's defense is best with its back to the wall, with the eighth-best touchdown percentage allowed in goal-to-go situations. Atlanta also ranks 10th in run defense. Here are some more specific areas in which the Falcons have excelled in 2020:
· The Falcons' offense ranks 10th in third-down conversion rate, at 43.3%. That's good but Atlanta is particularly good at keeping drives alive when facing extra long third downs. Atlanta's success rate on third downs requiring 11 or more yards to convert is 27.6%, second in the NFL only to the Chargers' 28.6% rate. That's close to double the league rate in that difficult situation, as NFL teams as a whole only convert on 15.2% of third downs needing more than 10 yards.
· Atlanta has not hurt its efforts too much with penalties this season. The Falcons have been flagged 69 times, which is tied for the seventh-lowest total in the NFL. They have been particularly disciplined on offense, committing just 30 infractions for 213 yards, both of which are the second-lowest totals in the NFL. Most impressively, Atlanta has committed just six offensive holding penalties, the least in the NFL this season.
· The Falcons' defense does a better job, relative to the rest of the league, getting pressure on the quarterback on third down than they do on first and second-down drop-backs. Through midseason, according to Next Gen Stats, Atlanta had a pressure rate of 38.6% on third-down pass rushes, which ranked seventh in the NFL.
· It's already stated above but it is worth looking a little closer at how good kicker Younghoe Koo has been in his first full season on the job. Koo has made seven field goals of 50 or more yards in seven tries, including two just last week that had less than a 60% chance of succeeding, according to Next Gen Stats. Koo has faced those odds seven times this season and nailed the kick every time, the most without a miss by any kicker in the league. Koo also made his only 50+ attempt last year, so he has yet to miss from that range. He's also a perfect 18-for-18 inside 40 yards in 2020.
Atlanta's defense is giving up 390.6 yards per game this season, fifth-most in the NFL, and it is second-worst in terms of yards allowed per play, at 6.06. The pass defense has had the harder go of it, ranking 30th in yards per game and 29th in yards per play. Atlanta's offense has struggled to run the ball (3.7 yards per carry) and ranks 20th in sacks allowed per pass play. In addition:
· Despite their positive scoring differential, Atlanta has been one of the NFL's worst red zone teams this year on both sides of the ball. The Falcons are converting fewer than 50% of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns this season (48.9%) for the second-worst rate in the league. Meanwhile, the Atlanta defense has allowed 68.2% of opponent drives inside its 20 to reach the end zone. That is the fourth-worst percentage in the league.
· Atlanta's rushing attack has only averaged 98.3 yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry in part because it has been below averaging in generating extra yards after contact. According to NFL stat service Radar360, Falcon running backs have a total of 574 yards after contact this year, averaging 1.65 per play. Those figures rank eighth and seventh-worst in the NFL, respectively.
· While Koo has been nearly flawless on field goals and hasn't missed in the 30-40 yard range, he's strangely misfired on three of his 28 extra point tries. That's an 86.7% success rate on PATs, which is the third-worst in the NFL.
· Atlanta's defense has been susceptible to short passes out to the right and left (and basically average over the middle). The Falcons have allowed a 78.5% completion rate and 7.44 yards per attempt on passes thrown to the short left, which ranks 31st and 30th in the league, respectively. Their completion rate allowed of 75/1% to the short right is also 30th. This is not a matter of small sample size, as the Falcons have had to defend 322 such passes this season.
NEW FACES IN 2020
While the Falcons' offensive core remained mostly intact with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and the offensive line, there were some significant changes in the backfield and the pass-receiving corps, with replacements for the departed Devonta Freeman and Austin Hooper. Atlanta also brought in a new edge-rush option and replaced veteran cornerback Desmond Trufant with a first-round draft pick
1. CB A.J. Terrell. Terrell was the 16th-overall pick in last April's draft and the third cornerback off the board. After he had a very impressive training camp, the Falcons threw the 6-1, 195-pound DB right into the starting lineup, though he did miss two early games while on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Terrell is fourth on the team with 66 tackles and has recorded one interception and five passes defensed. He has also forced three fumbles.
2. RB Todd Gurley/TE Hayden Hurst. These are the Freeman and Hooper replacements. The Falcons snapped up Gurley only days after he was released by the Rams in a salary-cap move. He missed the recent win over Las Vegas with a knee injury but otherwise has handled the bulk of the carries in Atlanta's backfield. The Falcons didn't try to match the big offer they knew was coming for Hooper in free agency, instead sending a second-round pick to Baltimore to get Hurst, the former first-round pick who was part of a crowded Ravens depth chart at the position. Hurst is fourth on the team with 43 catches.
3. DE Dante Fowler. When the Rams also chose to let Fowler go in favor of signing Leonard Floyd, the Falcons signed the former seventh-overall draft pick in their ongoing quest to find a productive edge rusher. Fowler did have 11.5 sacks for the Rams in 2019 but he only has 2.0 for the Falcons so far, in part because he also missed some time on the COVID list. This might have more to do with Aaron Donald, as Floyd already has a career-high 7.5 sacks this year for Los Angeles.
1. WR Julio Jones. Jones has missed four games this season with hamstring injuries and was not able to go last Sunday against the Chargers. It's worth noting that Jones has not yet sat out two games in a row this season.
2. G James Carpenter. Carpenter, the Falcons' starting left guard, has missed the last two games with a groin injury. Veteran Justin McCray, an offseason acquisition from the
3. S Damontae Kazee. While the Falcons got Keanu Neal back this year after a pair of season-ending injuries, another one of their top safeties was lost early in the season. Kazee, who started 29 games over the past two seasons and the first four this year, saw his fourth NFL year end abruptly with an Achilles tendon tear.