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Is the Falcons defense better than it looks? A quarter-by-quarter study

The Atlanta Falcons are allowing more points in the fourth quarter than any other.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Many of you lovely readers have pestered me politely inquired about a theory circulating around the fanbase. That theory, summarized neatly, is that the Falcons actually have a pretty good defense that looks way worse because teams score a ton of points in the fourth quarter, when the Falcons have a huge lead/allow garbage time points/get tired as a unit. This is an interesting theory, so I decided to look into it.

With the help of the very useful Team Rankings site, I was able to look at the average points the Falcons have allowed per quarter (and overtime) this year, and how those totals stack up against Dan Quinn’s first season in 2015.

1st Quarter: 4.2 points, 14th overall (5.0 2015)

2nd Quarter: 7.9 points, 24th overall (5.9 2015)

3rd Quarter: 3.2 points, 5th overall (5.4 2015)

4th Quarter: 9.8 points, 31st overall (5.0 2015)

Overtime: 0.2 points, 25th overall (0.2 2015)

What do we notice, here? The idea that the Falcons allow all their points in the fourth quarter as teams are furiously garbage timin’ holds quite a bit of water, and it neatly matches what we saw the Saints do against the Falcons in Week 17. They allowed very few points per quarter in the 1st and especially 3rd quarters, but the 2nd quarter was also a fairly major trouble spot. If you wanted to posit that the defense was getting tired at the end of halves, or that the Falcons usually had such a major lead at this point that they were inevitably easing off a bit, I wouldn’t argue with you, but the cause of that second quarter spike is not as immediately obvious at the fourth.

Were those totals chiefly driven by garbage time, though? Consider the Raiders game, when they allowed 14 points in a close game, and the Eagles game where they allowed 14 points that led to a loss. On the other hand, there’s the first game against the Panthers (23 points), the Broncos game (13 points), the second Bucs game (14 points), the Rams game (14 points), and the final Saints game (19 points), all of which were essentially over before the fourth quarter even began. The argument would seem to favor garbage time, then.

You can, then, credibly claim that the Falcons defense is doomed by circumstance and offensive success to look a little worse than it actually is. I don’t buy the argument that this defense has been good except in fits and starts, but I do think it will be before very long.

What’s also very noteworthy is that the Falcons were on average quite stingy with the scoring in the third quarter, the exact opposite of what you might expect given what we so bitterly complained about from 2008-2014.

On balance, the Falcons allowed a greater number of average points per game in 2016 (23.1) than the 2015 defense (21.3), though this version definitely has more young, high-upside players, as well as more #fast and #physical ones than the year before. If you were looking for a reason to be encouraged about this team’s postseason chances and their future fortunes, this should do the trick. Just be wary of those late points, especially because this game is likely to be close.