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Understanding the mind of a Pro Football Focus analyst

The man behind the Pro Football Focus’ Atlanta Falcons Twitter account shares his thoughts on certain positions and questions surrounding the Falcons.

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NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to doing research about a player or team, Pro Football Focus is one of the top places to find the required information for NFL fans. They have created a unique platform by focusing on breaking down games and providing fascinating statistics. From crafting their own quarterback ranking system to highlighting what happens in the trenches like no other website, Pro Football Focus has become nationally recognized as the premier resource for data.

To continue their pursuit of being active and innovative, they made a team account on Twitter for all 32 teams. Garrett Mehal currently manages the Atlanta Falcons account. After doing the necessary work to become an analyst, Garrett continues to do more by handling social media responsibilities on a consistent basis. We talked about how he grasped the intricacies of football.

“I think the most important thing for me to see the game better was focusing on specific aspects,” Mehal said. “For instance, the run game was about learning all the different run concepts and watching them over again. Sooner or later, you become familiar with what to expect from the offensive line and know what they’re doing. You know what their job is and you can pick out when someone isn’t performing. Recognizing concepts made a huge difference for me.”

“Evaluating run defense was the hardest thing for me. There are so many moving parts and defensive fronts that you have to look out for. If you watch a play a few times, you can tell which gaps the players are trying to go for or if they’re two gapping. You can see who is trying to control the opposing lineman and trying to pop out of whichever gap they need to get to. Sometimes, it takes three or four times to identify what is going on.”

It’s important to focus on specific positions when watching film. Instead of trying to look at the overall play, Pro Football Focus pinpoints a certain position to watch on a specific play. That leads to them watching the play multiple times to fully understand what transpired on the field. Not everything is always that difficult. Not every position and combination is considered as a complex puzzle. Some are fairly easy to evaluate.

Breaking Down the Game

“Quarterback to receiver is the easiest based on how we evaluate,” Mehal stated. “We aren’t evaluating all the possible throws that the quarterback could make. We are focusing on what throw the quarterback does make. It’s fairly easy to tell if the throw was accurate and if you’re putting the receiver in an easy position to make a play afterwards. For the receiver, it’s about seeing if he makes the catch and evaluating what he does with the ball in his hands. You know what to expect from the receiver after the catch and credit him for doing more than expected like breaking tackles or running past defenders.”

Pro Football Focus’ grading system is known for sparking debates. Analysts, journalists, and fans can struggle to understand how a player graded so poorly. Even though some players fill up the box score, that doesn’t always translate into a great performance. Pro Football Focus goes far beyond the box score in their grading system. That’s what makes their system so appealing, especially when you start valuing each position and their significance on every play.

“The way we are doing grading is by assigning players on each play,” Mehal said. “That leads to us grading from negative two to positive two in half point increments. Zero is an expected play or if a player isn’t involved. Free safeties get zeroes more often than any player. You think about Ricardo Allen playing the role of a high safety. There are so many plays where he isn’t involved, especially against the run. In the pass game, he is only involved when it’s a deep pass. Allen is either covering the deep middle or trying to help out towards the numbers. That’s one position where it can be challenging at times.”

As trends start to grow across the NFL, Pro Football Focus remains on the pulse of what is happening. That comes from having numerous analysts watching countless hours of film. It also involves having working relationships with every team. Garrett explains the importance of having connections, along with how college football continues to influence the professional game. They have played integral roles in maintaining PFF’s status as an invaluable website.

“In the couple of years I’ve been here, PFF has made a lot of progress on the consumer side,” Mehal said. “You see them regularly on NBC. We have contracts with FOX and CBS. They’re using our stats and graphics during games. The side you don’t necessarily see is PFF working with NFL teams. We have all 32 teams as our clients. Getting to all 32 teams was big for PFF. NFL teams are now giving us input every single year during the off-season about our data. It’s about things they would like to see and change about our data. I think that input from NFL teams is great in terms of keeping what we do relevant and keeping it ahead of the game.”

“When it comes to trends, the run-pass option is huge. We saw Philadelphia using it with Carson Wentz and Nick Foles to great success. From watching and grading college games, you see a ton of it. We have an analytics department that has started to look into them. They are seeing a really high expected points added on those run-pass options. I wouldn’t be surprised to see even more teams use that in the future.”

Focusing on the Falcons

After learning the PFF system and proving himself as a worthy analyst, Garrett is directing most of his focus towards the Falcons. Taking over the official account has allowed him to watch the team on a consistent basis. There are plenty of current hot topics about the Falcons. None are bigger than Julio Jones’ contract situation.

It would be a major surprise, if both sides don’t reach an agreement within the next month. That hasn’t kept some from voicing their frustration over Jones’ decision. Frustration usually leads to making ridiculous claims such as Jones being “overrated” or headed towards a “steep decline”. Despite his low touchdown total, Jones is still one of the most valuable skill position players in the league.

“Julio Jones is the real deal,” Mehal stated. “He has graded out as a top-three wide receiver in the past four seasons. To be that consistent is pretty incredible. One statistic that he leads in almost every season that we find very important in showing how efficient a wide receiver is called yards per route run. That’s receiving yards per route he is running, regardless if he gets targeted or not. That is something Julio Jones is always finishing first in, which usually ends in a wide margin. That shows you how efficient he is as a receiver.”

“I posted this stat two weeks ago that shows how valuable Jones is. The Falcons’ offense went from a top five offense when he was on the field to middle of the pack when he is not out there. That’s a huge testament to how much attention opposing defenses are giving him. Even the running game takes a significant downfall when he is off the field.”

As the organization looks to get on terms with Jones, there is one major cloud hanging over Atlanta’s Super Bowl aspirations. Steve Sarkisian didn’t inspire any confidence in his first season as offensive coordinator. The drop off in production across the board was staggering. While his play calling must improve, the disappointing offensive display didn’t fall solely on the embattled offensive coordinator. Garrett highlighted a troubling stat that ultimately hindered one of the most talented offenses in the league.

“There are a few differences from 2016 to 2017 with the offense,” Mehal said. “The biggest change I thought was the Falcons’ deep passing game. Matt Ryan led the NFL in passer rating on throws 20 plus yards downfield in 2016. He took a huge step back in 2017 to where he was about middle of the pack on deep throws. Ryan was also the safest quarterback in the league. It’s good that he wasn’t putting the ball up there to get intercepted, but we didn’t see those big-time throws downfield as often as you would expect from a quarterback of his caliber. If can open up those big plays with Sarkisian improving in his second year, it would make the biggest difference for their offense.”

A defensive look

With the defense showing tremendous improvement last season, there were several breakout performances. Every draft class during Dan Quinn’s tenure appears to be a major success. No year was bigger than 2016, as it transformed a languishing defense into a legitimate difference-making unit. That comes from selecting three high-level starters, along with Brian Poole playing a crucial role. One player in particular managed to surpass PFF’s expectations last season.

“De’Vondre Campbell was the biggest surprise to me,” Mehal stated. “He didn’t grade very well in his rookie year. We didn’t know if he had that position locked down. The Falcons didn’t know if he was going to be the long-term answer at weak side linebacker. That changed last season. He was excellent in coverage. I believe he finished with a top ten grade in coverage. It was a bigger step forward than I expected. His progression has clearly helped fix a once problematic position for the Falcons. You can tell how effective he is playing alongside Deion Jones.”

For all the defense’s success, there were a few underachievers on an otherwise outstanding unit. Some young players didn’t quite live up to high expectations. It was surprising to see the 2016 sack king be at the forefront. Considering how much talent is on the Falcons’ roster, it’s not difficult to pinpoint the few players that showed regression in their game.

Vic Beasley isn’t exactly a surprise choice,” Mehal stated. “The consensus is that he had a down year. After a big 2016 season, he graded really poorly as a pass rusher. Beasley couldn’t generate consistent pressure on the quarterback. There has been a lot of talk this off-season about him sticking to pass rushing and not lining up as an off-the-ball linebacker. We’ll see if completely focusing on getting after the quarterback gets him back to where he needs to be.”

“Beasley’s 2016 season is a prime example for most PFF analysts when it comes to evaluating an edge rusher. It shows how we differ from the mainstream consensus about a player. All the talk about pass rushers in the media is based around sacks. A really important part of our data is keeping track of quarterback hits and pressures. We’ll compare Beasley to Khalil Mack from that same season. Mack graded much higher, despite having only 11 sacks to Beasley’s 16 sacks. Mack ended up producing 40 more pressures during the season. That has such a big impact on the quarterback.”

“From our data, we found that the quarterback’s passer rating drops 35 points when under pressure. Pressures aren’t mentioned too much in the media, but stats show how much it can affect the game. Another concern about Beasley’s big season was that about half of his sacks were cleanup sacks or someone else forced the pressure to create an opening for him. We need to see more individual success from him like winning those crucial one on one battles on the outside.”

If Beasley can get better with his technique and start generating more pressure, that will only make an already dangerous defense more lethal. The Falcons’ defense solidified themselves as a top-ten unit last season. They have shown drastic improvement during every season under Quinn. Will the progress continue going into year four? Could this defense actually ascend into a top-five group?

“The defense took a huge step forward last season,” Mehal said. “There is only one thing that worries me. It involves how much talent they lost on the defensive line. Adrian Clayborn led the team in pressures and sacks. Dontari Poe finished third in pressures. It’ll be important for Takkarist McKinley to keep making strides. He is going to get a major increase in snaps. They’ll need Beasley to have a bounce back year. I’m interested to see how Deadrin Senat contributes as a rookie.”

“If they can sustain the pass rush that they had last season, the defense should only get better. The linebacker core really performed well last season. They should take another step forward. Drafting Isaiah Oliver and signing Ron Parker makes a stacked secondary even better. The only real concern would be the pass rush. Other than that, this defense looks set to take on any offense.”

There are plenty of players to watch for on the Falcons’ terrific roster. Garrett is still amazed at how much talent was added over the past three years. It’s difficult to select one person as the most exciting player to watch for going into the 2018 season. If you had to make a choice, a budding superstar middle linebacker should receive serious consideration.

“Deion Jones is one of my favorite players to watch in the league,” Mehal said. “I can’t wait to see if he can establish himself as an elite linebacker. I think he can be the best or at least one of the top three linebackers in the league. If he reaches his full potential, that’s where he’ll be. He isn’t too far away from being there. Jones was the top-graded linebacker in coverage last season. Because of some issues against the run, he ended up grading as the sixth best overall linebacker in the league. Jones is a special talent that only looks to be getting even better.”