Week 13 O-Line Spotlight: Atlanta Falcons
At first glance, it’s difficult to evaluate a team that only runs 50 offensive plays in a game. At the same time, it’s not. A team that cannot sustain drives and holds the ball nineteen fewer minutes than the opponent is not likely to be victorious, even with a defensive touchdown. As a fantasy football player, it’s not the loss you’re concerned about. It’s the missing yardage and points. The Falcons were bereft of both on Sunday.
Atlanta’s 131 total yards were their fewest in nearly 20 years (since December 12, 1999, to be specific). Matt Ryan entered Week 13 with 250 or more passing yards in every game this season, a 71.4 percent completion rate the top of the league, and a remarkable streak of 10 straight games at or above 65 percent. He would end the game below 150 passing yards for just the fourth time in his career, and the first time since way back in 2010.
The running game didn’t get any more love. The one-two punch of Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith combined for 30 yards on 13 carries, and 26 of those yards were after contact.
All of this is to say that our hopes for fantasy production were smashed as we held our Julio Jones shares, then cried as the final whistle sounded.
Yeah, But Why?
By my accounts, the Falcons had only two successful drives in this game. The first one, in which they negated some effects of the Ravens’ blitz with quick passes (and the only two Julio catches on the day), and the very last drive, which was supported mostly by penalties against Baltimore.
Early on, Atlanta seemed to have a good grasp on what Baltimore wanted to do and handled it well enough. Nothing stood out as detrimental. And while Ryan was able to get the ball out unscathed, you could sense it was going to be a long day. By the time the Falcons got downfield to kick a field goal and put a few of their meager points on the board, Ryan was already hurrying throws.
As the first quarter was winding down, the Baltimore blitz packages were beginning to spring leaks not only in the offensive line, but also in the psyche of Ryan. In the play shown below, the Ravens got pressure while only rushing four. Za’Darius Smith (#90) causes his first major disruption, bullrushing Wes Schweitzer (#71) and landing some blows to the left guard’s chest en route to forcing Ryan into an easy Terrell Suggs sack. While plenty of negative plays are due to scheming and creative blitzes, this was pure power on display by Za’Darius.
Don’t Forget About the Run
Despite pass protection woes from a group of replacement offensive lineman (both guards, Schweitzer and Zane Beadles, started the season deep on the depth chart), Atlanta’s run blocking was the likeliest beginning of their Week 13 downfall. Their zone-blocking outside run scheme was dismantled. The Ravens’ got penetration before Coleman could make a move, as well as blocking off the outside before Smith could get around his own offensive tackles.
No play showcased the doom of Atlanta’s circumstance better than a 4th & 1 attempt at midfield as the second quarter began. The Ravens weren’t fooled at all on the play and stuffed 10 men in the box to earn pushback on the entire offensive line. Smith was gobbled up in the backfield, his hole closing before he even received the ball. Very large man and ingester (is that a word?) of running backs, Michael Pierce took on a double team from center Alex Mack and Schweitzer, turning both away from the point of attack. Left guard Jake Matthews was left to block both Suggs and Eric Weddle. The result was a turnover on downs.
The few plays that the Falcons had from there on out reflected their first few possessions. Running backs were unable to find the edge, Matt Ryan looked clueless about who was blitzing from where, and both tackles got crossed up with stunts on the outside. Atlanta went on to convert just two of their nine 3rd-down attempts after averaging a 49.3 percent conversion rate coming into the game.
Matt Ryan has been sacked or hit on 29 of his last 82 dropbacks, and his team has scored 19 points or fewer in their last four games. The rushing attack, poor for most of the year, has been even more atrocious of late. The Falcons have averaged 52.75 rushing yards over that month-long span.
Below you’ll see a visualization of Warren Sharp’s Success Rate from SharpFootballStats.com. The graphic isolates the Falcons’ rushing success over the past month with five or fewer yards-to-go. Overall, Atlanta is 19.1 percent below league average, and they’re somehow 71 percent below average on stretch/outside runs to the right. Their second biggest problem is running directly towards a gap controlled by a guard. Defenses are beating the Falcons’ guards both at the line and while pulling to create space on the outside. The state of these backup to the backups is one of gloom.
Which Falcons Can We Start in the Fantasy Playoffs?
That depends on how much risk you want to take on in these crucial final weeks. Let’s run through everyone.
As your QB2, Ryan should be safe enough through the playoffs against the middling defenses of Green Bay, Arizona, and Carolina. He should go back to providing a safe floor after this disaster of a game. There’s a possibility Aaron Rodgers carves up the Atlanta defense after the firing of Mike McCarthy, which could make for a nice shootout scenario. Keep an eye on the weather, but unless there’s a blizzard in Wisconsin, I’d keep Ryan in the starting lineup.
Tevin Coleman & Ito Smith?
The shortcomings of the Falcons’ guards hurt the running backs more than anyone on the team. Atlanta needs extra pass protection for the middle of the line. They can’t open running lanes, and the running backs aren’t able to chip on their way out to routes as easily as when they’re used to fortify an outside pass rush. The fact that the rushing touches are cut down the middle between Coleman and Smith detracts from their value even further. The pair’s touch totals combined over the Falcons’ last four games are only 73, averaging out to 18.25 per game, and hardly enough to sustain two running backs. It’s safe to leave both off your playoff rosters as they continue to block blitzers.
The benefactor of the running backs’ shrunken roles has been Austin Hooper, who has 24 catches over this last month. He has supplanted both the rushers and—to a degree—Mohamed Sanu as Ryan’s safety valve. Hooper becomes more like a Zach Ertz as the season progresses, running more and more pass routes and staying in to block less and less. Those are the exact things we need for acceptable productivity from a position mostly devoid of production. Atlanta’s tight end is an easy start, even against two defenses who have been tough on the position (Green Bay and Arizona), and especially against a giving one (Carolina).
Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, & Calvin Ridley?
Sanu and Calvin Ridley will go as Ryan goes. If you believe Ryan can stay upright and get back to his high-floor ways, then Ridley can be a good play. If you believe Ryan will stay upright and sling around 400 yards against the Packers, then Sanu is just Ridley without the touchdowns. Finally, if you believe… Yeah, just play Julio.