Each year, we get the opportunity to ask five questions of the bright minds over at Football Outsiders, just in time for the release of their 2014 Almanac. Here's our questions this year, with five answers from FO's Vince Verhei.
Dave Choate: The Falcons have shown the tendency to focus on short and intermediate passes in recent years, which is a frustration for fans at times. What kind of effect do you believe getting to league average on deep passes would make for the offense?
Vince Verhei: First of all, it's important to note that your observations are spot-on. Only 11 percent of Atlanta's pass attempts traveled more than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That's four percent fewer than any other team, and barely half the league average of 20 percent. In fact, the Falcons were last in rate of both standard deep passes (16 to 25 yards downfield), and also last in rate of "bomb" attempts of 26 yards or more. And if you're wondering about Julio Jones and his injury, the Falcons were tied for fewest total deep passes in the first five weeks of the year.
Now, when they did throw deep, they were pretty good at. Including defensive pass interference calls as completions, they were eighth in the league in completion rate on deep passes, and fourth in yards per play. So on the surface, yes, it seems like they should call more deep passes. I'm not sure, though, how much of that is scheme and philosophy, and how much of that is just Matt Ryan's style. He's a patient, death-by-a-thousand-cuts kind of guy, and really always has been, and by and large it's been effective. And with the Falcons running game in the state it's in, it's important that Ryan find a way to move the chains consistently. Still, there's got to be room for some more "shot" plays somewhere.
For comparison's sake, no team threw deep more often Philadelphia, and their quarterback just completed one of the best statistical seasons ever. After the Eagles, the next most bomb-happy squad was the Seahawks, and if you've forgotten, they won the Super Bowl. The next four teams, though, were the Ravens, Vikings (really!), Cardinals, and Jets. These are not the offenses you want to emulate. At the other end of the spectrum, you have the Falcons, followed by the Jaguars, Chiefs, Cowboys, Washington, Texans, Rams, and Dolphins. That's not a good bunch either. As usual, a moderate dose of high-risk plays seems to be the way to go.
DC: It’s a small sample size, but Jonathan Massaquoi did appear to find his footing late in the season. Is there reason to believe that will carry over, or are the Falcons going to be pining for even one above average pass rusher again?
VV: Massaquoi's a bit of an odd case. The SackSEER system we use to project collegiate pass rushers was very down on him, but that may say more about the official scorer at Troy than it does about Massaquoi's talents. Passes defensed in college is usually a surprisingly strong indicator of sack production in the NFL, and Massaquoi tipped very few passes in his Trojans career. However, the two guys who have most strongly outperformed their collegiate PD rate are DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora—and they went to Troy too. Not to say that Massaquoi will be the next Ware or Umenyiora, but there may be room for cautious optimism here.
DC: You note that Jon Asamoah spent time on the Chiefs’ bench, but I’ve seen more than one metric rating him as a distinctly above average lineman. What should the Falcons expect from Asamoah and young right tackle Jake Matthews?
VV: We charted Asamoah with one blown block every 81.5 snaps, which was in fact better than average, and slightly better than Geoff Schwartz, his Kansas City teammate who sometimes took his place in the starting lineup. Really, though, offensive linemen remain very difficult to evaluate, either statistically or via scouting, unless you're sitting down with the offensive line coach and discussing each player's assignment on a given play. What looks like a blown block on film is often a failed attempt to cover for a teammate who screwed up his job. Still, it's not as if Asamoah was getting Jamaal Charles killed or anything.
As for Matthews, we used to have a check in our system that would bump the projection for any team that used a high draft pick on an offensive tackle. Historically, those teams tended to show dramatic improvement, even in those tackles' first seasons. That hasn't happened as much lately—Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel both looked pretty bad last year, the Vikings and Washington have struggled even after selecting Matt Kalil and Trent Williams, and Jason Smith was a disaster in St. Louis—but that could be a historical blip, and the positive trend could always resurface.
DC: We all know running back performance tends to crater once you hit your 30’s, but we’re all hoping Steven Jackson has a bounceback left in him. What do his career thus far and historical examples suggest?
VV: I'm going to cheat on this one a little bit. We're behind schedule this year, and haven't had time to run our similarity scores for our offensive players yet. Keep an eye on Jackson's Football Outsiders page (http://www.footballoutsiders.com/player/16184/steven-jackson), which will hopefully be updated before the season with a list of players similar to Steven Jackson from 2011 to 2013. In the meantime, let's set a very loose definition of a good season for a running back of at least 1,000 yards and 4.0 yards per carry. So far this century, there have been 24 such seasons by running backs who turned 28 that year; 10 each by 29- and 30-year-olds; seven by 31-year-olds; and only two by runners age 32 or older. Jackson, of course, turned 31 in August.
DC: Most outlets appear to have the Falcons slotted somewhere between 7-9 wins for the upcoming season. What’ve you got?
VV: Hey man, they call us Outsiders for a reason. We stand out from the crowd. We make our own name. There's a lotta things about us you don't know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn't understand. Things you couldn't understand. Things you shouldn't understand. You don't wanna get mixed up with guys like us. We are loners, Dottie. We're rebels.
Whoops. Sorry. Got carried away there. Anyway, after all our projections, we've got the Falcons winning an average of 7.3 games this year, with about a one-in-four shot at getting into the playoffs. Conventional wisdom isn't always wrong.