Receiver Injuries: The Silver Lining

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries have plagued the team this year, but we can still be positive about the future.

We obviously could have done without injuries to our top two receivers this year. Roddy White played hurt at the beginning of the season; Julio Jones was smothered by coverage until getting hurt. Then, with both Jones and White out after week 5, Tony Gonzalez consistently drew pressure at the line of scrimmage, as well as double-teams. So what's the silver lining for Atlanta? This forced allowed them to give other players some valuable experience.

Now, we look towards 2014 with a question about how the Falcons perform without Tony Gonzalez. I've seen him referred to as Matt Ryan's "Security Blanket"...and who wants to give that away? I'll touch on three views of Ryan's passing distribution: overall, third down, and red zone targets. I will look at the number or TARGETS by receiver, not receptions, in order to address the impact on Ryan's throwing habits. I have the periods broken out as follows:

  • 2012: Percentage of targets during the 2012 Year
  • Week 1 - 5: 2013 Percentage of targets with Julio Jones playing, but Roddy White playing hurt
  • Week 7 - 9: 2013 Percentage of targets with both Jones and White sitting out
  • Week 10 - 17: 2013 Percentage of targets with White playing and Jones out
As far as Steven Jackson goes, I used Michael Turner's targets from 2012 to show the shift. I promise, though the charts may look overwhelming at first, it's much easier to draw comparisons by putting all receivers in the same graph. Just look over it for a moment, read the examples posted below the first graph, and hopefully everything will make sense.


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With Roddy White hurt the first five games, Matt Ryan threw more often to Jones (+6%), Douglas (+3%), Snelling (+3%), and Others (+3%) than in 2012. Tony Gonzalez's numbers shows a similar start to 2012, but his targets dipped by roughly 5% with Julio injured. Our opponents were comfortable double-teaming Gonzalez, and with Jones and White out,Harry Douglas doubled his production (from 13% the first five weeks to 28% of total targets). Rodgers also received a huge bump in targets between week 7 and 9 (from 9% in 2012 to 19%) while Jackson.

The big recipient of playing time was Darius Johnson, jumping to 10% of targets when playing. The period after Roddy was healthy looks deflated for Johnson, but he missed the game against San Francisco. In all, I believe Johnson can make a big impact next year. Coach Robiske has done an incredible job developing receivers. Similar to his work with Roddy White, I believe Robiske will likely focus on minimizing drops.

Now to the more interesting part:


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Roddy White has been Matt Ryan's favorite third down target in both 2012 and since getting healthy. He has been the target 35% of the time since Week 10. Before Julio freakishly broke the screw in his foot, he seemed to replace quite a bit of White's production in that area, up from 18% in 2012 to 33% in 2013. At the same time, Tony's production has slowly been factored out, partially because defenses throw more bodies at him than the Smiths at Neo.

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Harry Douglas ended up being the go-to with both star receivers gone, reaching 35% of third down targets, up from 12% in 2012. We also see that Darius Johnson became a significant target during that three game period (16%). With Roddy back in the mix, Matt Ryan shifted production away from Douglas.

I also thought it was appropriate to look at our third down conversions

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Obviously, a few variables are at play here, but I think we can all agree that Roddy White's return has really elevated our offense. Since Week 10, our conversion rate has been higher than last year, even with the struggling offensive line. If we had this conversion rate all year, it would be good for second place in the NFL. The first five weeks provided a tough experience for our offense, with the line allowing less than 2.5 seconds in the pocket on average. The marginal improvement appears to have helped, along with sidelining the decoy Roddy White.

Lastly, the Red Zone:


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would love to see what you think on this part because I can interpret this multiple ways. After thinking through a couple, here's how I can give it a positive spin:

Surprisingly, Tony was not Matt Ryan's favorite target in the Red Zone in 2012. Both Jones and White held a fairly equal share of the pie. This year, Ryan has had to spread the ball around with the absence of our top receivers. Tony obviously received a chunk, but so did Johnson (+11%), Douglas (+7%), Jackson (+5%), and Others (+5%). Until Jackson came back healthy, looks to Rodgers skyrocketed from 4% in 2012 to 21%.

We can also hope that Toilolo continues to develop and provide, if nothing else, a tall and sure-handed target in the red zone. Going out on a limb, I also think that Patrick DiMarco has flown under the radar. Not only has he been a great blocker, he's caught 8 of the 9 passes thrown his way, some of which not being easy grabs. He could end up being a nice target in the red zone.

The injuries this year may have shifted things around a bit, but we can hope it's better in the long run. I'm not trying to say that Tony is replaceable - not by a long shot. I do, however, think the injuries have given Matt Ryan an opportunity to get comfortable distributing the ball elsewhere - not just in general, but on important third and red zone downs. The draft also poses an interesting opportunity to grab a receiver in the fourth or fifth round. Some good talent has been projected to fall in that range. It would be a good opportunity to grab a tall, quick player that can spread the field and potentially take the reigns from Roddy White in a few years.

This breaking-in period, so to speak, has enabled us to evaluate players and identify strengths. All the Falcons need to do now is retool their playbook around these strengths.

How do you think Atlanta will fair without Tony Gonzalez?

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